Lionel Shriver: “Kilifi Creek” from TNY, 11/18/13

TNY Photograph by Eric Ogden

TNY Photograph by Eric Ogden

It was a brand of imposition of which young people like Liana felt nothing: showing up on an older couple’s doorstep, the home of friends of friends of friends, playing on a tentative enough connection that she’d have had difficulty constructing the sequence of referrals.… Mature adulthood – and the experience of being imposed upon herself – might have encouraged her to consider what showing up as an uninvited, impecunious houseguest would require of her hosts.

It was all in the second read for me. Some stories are like that. Maybe the reason I’ve come to appreciate short stories so much is that it’s easy to read them a second time, particularly when the ending is as intriguing as this one; and sure enough, I missed the structure the first time through. Understanding that structure made all the difference.

No less than four times in the first two-and-a-quarter columns does Shriver refer to Liana’s youth, clearly contrasting it with a more mature state. I should’ve seen it: this section is a sort of prelude, a set-up, for what is to follow: a snapshot of this youthful state, then a movement through time into a different place that is, nevertheless, the same.

Yet midway through this casual mooching off the teeny-tiny-bit-pretentious photographer and her retired safari-guide husband… Liana entered one eerily elongated window during which her eventual capacity to make sterner judgments of her youthful impositions from the perspective of a more worldly adulthood became imperiled. A window after which there might be no woman. There might only, ever, have been a girl – remembered, guiltily, uneasily, resentfully, by her aging, unwilling hosts more often than they would have preferred.

Discussion of this story in any detail at all will necessarily contain spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

We first hear the tale of the young Liana’s adventures in Kenya, specifically, a particular day swimming in Kilifi Creek, a cut foot, and a riptide that threatens to drag her out into the Indian Ocean. Shriver plays suspense for all its worth, POV-hopping back to the impromptu hosts wondering where the girl after nightfall. She eventually shows up, but doesn’t reveal how close she came to dying:

Now she knew: there was such a thing as private.
Having aged far more than a few hours this evening, Liana was disheartened to discover that maturity could involve getting smaller.

I’ve never had, in a conscious state, a sudden, acute near-death experience; the two times I’ve come close to dying, I was unaware of the situation at the time (once due to anesthesia, once to delirium), and it was more a matter of looking back and realizing, wow, that could’ve been bad. I would imagine that a more in-the-moment realization would have had a much greater impact.

Nevertheless, even after such a thing, life goes on, and Liana returns to the US and becomes a marketing manager in New York for Brace Yourself, maker of neoprene joint supports for weekend warriors. A clever writer’s choice, perhaps too clever for my taste, but I can appreciate the continuity. I particularly liked her discovery upon finally, after so many years of keeping the incident private, of telling the story:

Having never shared the tale, she was startled by how little time it took to tell. But that was the nature of these stories: they were about what could have happened, or should have happened, but didn’t. They were very nearly not stories at all.

I can see the disappointment on her friend’s face; there’s a reason news broadcasts don’t include who didn’t drown today.

There’s also a nice consideration of the caution that age brings, even young ages like one’s 30s (the older I get, the younger the decades I left behind look). Children run barefoot through the grass in the rain; adults worry they’ll slip, or step on something sharp, because they’ve had experience with those things. If we’re lucky, we don’t get completely paralyzed by our experiences. Liana has been perhaps a little too lucky, leading to a dramatic, unexpected ending.

It wasn’t until I understood the structure – the prelude, the first act in Kenya, the time lapse to maturity, and the coda – that the story clicked for me into a harmonious whole. I’m glad it did.

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