There are some books that make you forget where you are, and transport you instantly, silently, into new worlds and places. Roger McKnight’s Hopeful Monsters short story collection – published by Storgy press in London – is one of these books. Seemingly from the first page, you find yourself displaced, to a Minnesota summer, where the world around you is shimmering beneath the dappled sunlight of maple leaves and pure, unadulterated Americana.
But it is one thing to describe a place well, and another entirely to make it feel real. Within these settings, we, as readers, are introduced to a plethora of characters who are so fully realised they make the scenes we read come alive.
It is true that there are some recurring themes with these characters – many are bound up by a sense of loss or nostalgia, or else trying to move on from an event that has greatly impacted their past. Yet while this makes some of the characters across stories feel familiar, by linking them together it makes a powerful point about the human condition; we are all, in some ways, coming to grips with our own lived experiences. The fact that many of the stories are very contained within a small space – a tour around a lake, the close routines of working in a chicken farm/factory – in many ways amplify the sense of constrained movement within the self; the attempts to move on and away from one’s past, and yet ultimately locked in a kind of dance with our previous experiences of the world all the while.
If there is to be a criticism of the book, it’s perhaps that there are moments when we are told about a characters’ past somewhat obliquely and abruptly. In the titular story from the collection, for instance, the character of Woody is introduced early on as “being a vet from Iraq”. It’s not as subtle as it could be, and it jars with the poignancy and careful characterisation that comes from McKnight’s greatest writing skill: his depiction of dialogue.
Throughout this book, it is the conversations between characters that really fizz, and burn quietly beneath the surface. Here, we see the inner workings of people’s lives and thoughts expressed through the often guarded language we all use to shield what we’re really, truly saying. Just like the great writers of dialogue – Greene, Carver, Moore, and others – McKnight’s thoughtful expressions and turns of phrase equip his characters with a sense of agency that never tells the reader how to feel but instead guides them to that perfect crux of empathy where we are surprised not to be reading characters that seem realistic; but to be reading characters that feel like ourselves; who have the same thoughts, feelings and reactions that we do. In this way, reading this book feels like being in a series of intimate conversations with your closest friends.
- Purchase a copy of ‘Hopeful Monsters’ by Roger McKnight directly from the wonderful folk behind independent UK printing press, Storgy – https://storgy.com/2019/08/02/hopeful-monsters/