This Way to Departures is a short story collection published in 2019 by Influx Press. It didn’t receive an awful lot of publicity, but I came upon it after reading a very short review of the book in a newspaper. It sounded interesting so I thought it was worth punt. The first thing I need to tell you about this collection is that it is absolutely nothing like what I was expecting. Based on what I had heard and the cover, I was expecting some stories centred on the idea of travelling, which maybe strayed into romance or comedy territories. Wow was I wrong! This book is a series of stories which are utter tour-de-forces, sweeping the rug out from under you and hitting you where it hurts. It is sucker punch after sucker punch.
Whoever decided on the order of these stories did a wonderful job. The two strongest stories are the first and the last which perfectly frame This Way to Departures. We begin with the story “Noir”. The tale of a journalist who becomes embroiled in El Salvador cartels after a young man appears at her work asking for help. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the young man, Miguel, is in serious trouble. Laura does everything she can to help even though it seems almost certain that things will not end well. I won’t tell you how the story ends. You must read it for yourself because the ending absolutely took my breath away. “Noir” is 38 pages long and closer to a novella in its style and structure. It used those pages wonderfully and still left me feeling like I would need an epic novel to come to terms with everything that happened. I was certain this was going to be my favourite story of the collection until I read the final story, but more on that later.
Next up is “Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months”, a short, punchy story which explores the social care system and how it is possible that children go missing, run away and even die while they are in the custody of the government. The story burns with anger and Linda Mannheim is extremely passionate about this issue, rightly so. The change of length is also quite refreshing as this stories snappiness keeps the flow of the whole collection working nicely.
“Butterfly McQueen on Broadway” is another one of the shorter stories. It is about Butterfly McQueen, star of Gone with the Wind, now elderly and living in Harlem. The story tackles the issue of race both in terms of the film itself and the roles that were afforded to black people during that time and how limited they were despite the clear talent they had. Using a 70s setting to bring to light the issues that face black people in the world today is a nice touch. It keeps the setting vibrant; the stories intriguing and really causes you to pause and give thought. I will say, however, that this story coming off the back of “Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months” was quite tough to read as both are white hot with anger. There is nothing wrong with that, we should be challenged, but I am not going to pretend this collection was an easy read because it was anything but.
The next story I wanted to discuss is the title story, This Way to Departures. The story shows us the 25-year long relationship between the narrator and Danny. When we meet Danny, he is a passionate journalist looking to make a difference in the world. He promises our narrator the family life she craves but cannot resist the pull of Nicaragua, the exploration of socialism. He pleads with the narrator to go with him, but she won’t. So, they go their separate ways only to meet again much later. I loved this story. It deals with a romantic relationship in such a profound, sensitive and interesting way. The topic may not be as grand as some of the stories which had come before but the subject is dealt with just as potently. The effect is a story that will have you blinking back the tears and thinking of the long-lost love in your life that got away. This story also displays the beautiful writing style Linda Mannheim has, which sometimes becomes lost in the other stories as the topic dominates all else.
The final story of this collection was my favourite. “Dangers of the Sun” is about a woman travelling to support her friend during a trial which will determine whether the doctor who misdiagnosed her husband’s mole as benign, before it came back to kill him, is responsible. That is the premise of the story, but the real heart of it is the relationship between Mia and Reeny. They have been friends there entire life and although they no longer live in the same place, Mia went on to become a successful curator at a museum and Reeny raised a family, they are still the same young girls who used to roam together growing up. Mia trying to escape her shabby home life, Reeny looking for excitement. The two characters are so believable, their relationship fully formed and entirely realistic. We know as a reader where the story is heading, it is impossible not to, but in the end that isn’t what’s important. What matters is that the two friends are together once again. This story perfectly encapsulates the tone of the whole collection, things are bleak, difficult and unfair but there is always love and hope in all situations.
I have given here just a snapshot of the stories in this collection, there are many more you need to discover for yourself. The theme of journeys set in many different cultures is used wonderfully and to great effect. As I said in the introduction, this book was not particularly publicised when it released, I for one am going to be championing it to everybody I know. Badgering them to read it, buy it and share it. Short stories are my favourite form of literature and these are some of the finest I have ever read. In these difficult, troubling times it is the collection you need. Get a copy now.