Rating 5 stars
This Way to Departures spreads its net wider than NYC, both geographically and emotionally. If Above Sugar Hill is about the identity of a particular place and its influence on those who are entwined in its arms, then Departures is about the nomads who have no place of their own and find it impossible to become entwined, no matter where they go.
The opening story, Noir, cleverly captures in words the feel of a noir film. Mannheim’s sentences are clipped and brooding, building an atmosphere in the way streetlight falling through the slats of a window blind does. It’s a story about hidden lives, the seductiveness of the vulnerable, and how easy it is for us to allow our belief in the world working a particular way to blind us to its reality.
Some of the stories in the collection take as their theme the lack of scrutiny and the need for those who are settled in a place to look away from the evidence that those who aren’t settled are being failed. It might be a child who falls through the cracks in the care system. It might be an actress forever pigeonholed by her skin colour. It might be a student taken advantage of by a tutor. It might even be a person who seems as though they fit in but who comes from a different kind of start in life and feels as though that part of them is being erased. Mannheim also looks at the other side of the story, at the way the impermanent sometimes fail those who want to give them roots. Sometimes a person’s beginnings in another place mean they can never find a place to call home. They can’t leave behind the ways in which that other place has formed them. It either sits with them, colouring their lives like an Instagram filter, or it is the spur that keeps them moving.
New York, that great clearing house for new arrivals to the promise of America, is still a significant presence in this collection. Some stories are set there, the city of immigrants a backdrop to the individual stories of exiles who find themselves resting there permanently. Other stories call back to it as the origin, the source of the protagonists’ wandering to find a place they can settle.
I’d already read one of the stories in the book. It was published in Granta magazine on the anniversary of 9-11. It’s one of my favourite stories in the collection. The reason I’m a fan of Mannheim’s writing is the clarity of her eye. She truly sees everything and presents her observation to the reader in a phrase that captures it deftly. In this story she presents the architectural, the environmental and the emotional fallout from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers with a matter-of-fact perfection. She calls up the trauma. She fixes it as a memory, like the images of the missing fixed in toner by the photocopy clerk who narrates the tale. It’s an incredible piece of writing. I wasn’t there, nor had I visited New York at that point, but I remember how it felt to witness the event unfolding on live TV from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This story adds the olfactory detail to what I saw on the TV.
In The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her, Mannheim offers a meditation on youth and the mystery of who we are when on the cusp of adulthood. A student drifts, tired from working three jobs to afford her tuition, missing out on opportunities to shine because she doesn’t know yet that she can. Her art tutor pays her to model for a painting and when she sees the finished work she realises that she is simultaneously the self she knows and the one constructed by outside observers.
It was the oddest thing, to be outside of herself like this, the young woman thought, completely different to a photo, seeing yourself as someone else’s construction.
It was her. It was not her.
This Way to Departures is a wonderful companion piece to Above Sugar Hill. It looks more deeply at the individuals and their reaction to the places they find themselves living in and the people they find themselves living among. It spoke to me as someone who lives a particular kind of life now, who seems to fit in with those who have always lived this kind of life, but who grew up in a different environment. Although my childhood wasn’t as tough as someone growing up on the east side of Broadway in Upper Manhattan in the 1970s, I understood the tensions felt by the narrator of The Christmas Story, who finds herself living a middle class life in a university town.
It’s not that I want to go back to where I grew up. I don’t want to go back to that time and place ever again. I just don’t want to be somewhere that erases that time and place.”
If you’ve ever felt that way, this collection is for you. Even if you haven’t felt that way, you should read Mannheim’s stories so that you can understand that not all beginnings are the same and some people come from different places to you. You won’t regret it.
Mannheim is currently working on a project that uses writing to express what it means to be a refugee. I’m looking forward to reading the work that emerges from Barbed Wire Fever.