Book Reviews

A Debut That Deserves a Prize: Book Review of When Trying to Return Home

Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s short story collection, When Trying to Return Home, takes complex characters and situations and weaves them into a tapestry that provides the reader with an emotional journey. The collection demonstrates McCauley’s dexterity as a writer as she shifts voices, styles, and points of view. In McCauley’s first book, Scar On / Scar Off, she showed off her talents as a poet. Her debut short story collection is the perfect follow-up, with stories that most definitely will leave you reflecting on the multifaceted themes in this book.

One of the most memorable stories in this collection is “The Missing One,” about a young Black boy, Kai, who attends a predominantly white school where he is bullied. He keeps his experiences a secret from his family even as his family holds dark secrets. There is tension in the story that builds in such a way that you question but understand the characters’ decisions at the same time that you find yourself wishing for the best for the characters. By the end, the secrets in the story are disclosed and characters reveal surprising versions of their true selves.

A second story that stands out is “Good Guys,” composed in such a unique style that you would swear that it was written by another author. In that story, a group of community college students struggles with academics, with each other, and with their lives. The story questions what it means to be a “good guy” amidst a misogynist world. The humor at times is subtle, but it is always well-timed and adds a layer of irony that is just right. Other stories also stand out for their characters and their underlying undeniable tension. “Torsion” is about a mother who is determined to take her own son from a facility with the help of her daughter, and “La Espera,” is told from varying points of view that include a mother and twin daughters.

No doubt, McCauley’s collection deserves accolades and at minimum, prize nominations. The last time I read a collection with such a sensitive ear for the silent cries of characters was when Ivelisse Rodriguez published Love War Stories, which was a finalist for the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award. When Trying to Return Home stands as one of the best books of the year and is a must-read.

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