Hopeful Monsters is Roger McKnight’s debut short story collection. It features 17 stories which often include characters experiencing hardship or difficulty while eventually finding some sort of solace. It is published by the wonderful Storgy Books who were generous enough to send me a copy to review.
Regular readers of my blog will know I love short stories. I love how in just a few pages you can be transported to a different time and space before returning all in the space of twenty minutes. So, I was extremely excited to receive this book. One of the first things to strike me about these stories is just how eclectic they are. While they share an over-arching theme, each story feels unique. In the opening story, Genuine Souls, two people meet by a lake, go on a long walk, and get to know each other. It is very meditative and really explores the characters. There isn’t an awful lot that happens at first glance but the more you think about the story the more depth there is to discover. Whereas a story like Iago tells the story of a young man struggling with addiction, desperate for another hit, getting disorientated while at a crack house and losing track of his friend and his belongings. There is a lot more happening on the surface with this story than in Genuine Souls, but each had a genuinely profound effect on me while I was reading this collection. This range helps to keep what is a lengthy book fresh and kept me interested throughout. It is not easy to write such a wide range of stories and keep a reader hooked so McKnight deserves a lot of credit for this.
All the stories are based in Minnesota and the trials and tribulations faced by the various characters involved, while often of a global nature (poverty, injustice, desperation) are viewed through the specific lens of a Minnesotan. I really enjoy this aspect of the book as it means that the whole collection has a consistency running through it. No matter how varied the stories being tackled are, the Minnesota setting keeps them grounded in realism which is crucial to the authenticity. There is also a theme of melancholy in almost all the stories. Often a longing for something lost or wishing for something different in the characters’ lives. While most of the stories have a resolution, which could potentially be described as happy, it is very rarely that straight forward. This kept me engaged with the stories and made sure I was thinking about them for a long time after I had finished reading the book as it often led me to reflecting on my own life and past experiences.
One of the stories which particularly jumped out at me was the title story Hopeful Monsters. It tells the story of a guy about to be evicted from his flat, struggling to make a living, who discovers that his uncle, who runs a chicken farm, has had a heart attack and needs a hand running things. He moves to the farm and along with a father and son from Mexico who help, sets about improving the fortunes of his uncles business. This story epitomises all the aspects of the book which I love and is a wonderful choice as the title story. There is hope running throughout but reality is never far away, ready to extinguish it. It tackles a huge social issue in tenants’ rights but does so in a way which never feels out of place in the narrative.
I also absolutely loved The First, Best Bus. It is a story about a woman whose son died in Iraq meeting a woman and her daughter who are immigrants from Iraq. They spend the day together, chat and form a bond before going their separate ways. The thing I loved most about this story is that it would have been easy to focus on the mother’s grief and linking that to the Iraqis but the story is far more about growth and understanding of different cultures and has lots of lovely little interactions between the characters.
This is a very accomplished and enjoyable collection. The themes and vision are clear, and it is obvious what Roger McKnight is trying to achieve with the stories. The writing is consistently good as well as the use of language. If I had to pick a fault, I do feel it was perhaps slightly on the lengthy side. I think it could have perhaps had a couple less stories although I had a tough time picking any stories which I would remove so it is understandable that they are all in the collection. I really, really enjoyed this collection though and if you enjoy short stories you need to pick up a copy!
I am grateful to Tomek Dzido for sending me a copy of this book.