Short stories can be like their own small islands, the peaks of different lives emerging as if from the ocean or the fog. In The Islands, a new short story collection from University of Notre Dame professor Dionne Irving, the characters are spread across oceans and continents, all connected to the island of Jamaica. Immigrants and their children navigate place, race and class in these ten stories, living with the aftershocks of colonialism. They are searching for the sense of home they left behind. Emotionally, socially, and financially, they are trying to keep their heads above water.
The opening story, “Florida Lives,” crystallizes these tensions. A young married couple moves from San Francisco to Florida, and upends their relationship in the process. The narrator struggles with the move, and cannot reconcile how differently she and her husband experience being Black in America. Her husband “hadn’t learned to be anything but casually suspicious of people. Like I said, he wasn’t Jamaican.” As their marriage fissures, troublesome neighbors at first exacerbate their problems, then come to their aid in a crisis.
In “Some People,” the only Jamaican mother at her child’s private school is pressured to participate in International Day. Kerry, a screenwriter, narrates with a wry, arch voice. She also is angry and tired. Over a dinner hosted by Kerry and her husband, Nathan, the microaggressions of (somewhat) well-meaning white people pile up like the curried goat guests leave on their plates.
Only one story is set in Jamaica: “All-Inclusive,” a reference to the resort setting where tourists pay once for all amenities and are served by Jamaicans who are otherwise excluded from luxuries the guests enjoy. “Colonialism by another name. Tourism. Where servants could never be slaves because you tipped them, because they smiled.” Poolside, privileged children scream their demands at the staff. Anaya, a guest of the married poet she’s dating, reconsiders what it means for her to be there.
The collection focuses primarily on women narrators, with the exception of “Weaving.” A broke boxer named Delroy steals a piglet as a present for his estranged daughter’s birthday, arrives hours after the party ends, and picks a fight with his ex-wife and her new husband. Terrible decisions, yes, but his many losses still engender empathy.
Irving teaches in the creative writing program at Notre Dame and is part of the school’s Initiative on Race and Resilience. Like the character in her story “Shopgirl,” she worked in her parents’ Caribbean grocery store in Canada when she was growing up. The piece pays homage to the Jamaica Kincaid story “Girl,” another very short story that also uses second-person point of view to demand a litany of tasks of an unnamed “you.”
While each story in The Islands ties to the singular island of Jamaica, it is the characters themselves who form the plural islands. They are made visible in Irving’s deft stories about what it means to lose a sense of place and culture, and to find that it lives within, in all its rocky complexity.
Dionne Irving is originally from Toronto, Ontario. She is the author of Quint (7.13 Books) and The Islands (Catapult Books) in 2022. Her work has appeared in Story, Boulevard, LitHub, Missouri Review, and New Delta Review, among other journals and magazines. Irving teaches in the Creative Writing Program and the Initiative on Race and Resilience at the University of Notre Dame.
Sarah Layden is the author of the forthcoming story collection Imagine Your Life Like This, as well as a novel, Trip Through Your Wires, and a flash fiction chapbook, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself. Her short fiction appears in Boston Review, Blackbird, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Best Microfiction 2020, and elsewhere, with recent nonfiction in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Salon, The Millions, and Indianapolis Monthly. A textbook co-authored with Bryan Furuness, The Invisible Art of Literary Editing, will be published in 2023. She is an Assistant Professor of English in the creative writing program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.