In her previous best-selling novels, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, Ann Packer proved her agility at inhabiting people who live through unspeakable events: What happens when a restless young woman’s fiancé becomes a quadriplegic on a fun day at the lake? What happens when a model mom’s kids are her life, and then her daughter attempts suicide? These are complicated scenarios without easy resolution, but Packer’s characters are fully developed with emotions that feel authentic.
The stories in Swim Back to Me, Packer’s new collection, are equally powerful. They focus on situations that make us uncomfortable to varying degrees—from the disorienting feeling of misjudging a co-worker, to the adolescent recognition of being ditched by a friend, to the excruciating pain of losing a child.
Packer conveys the dark pleasure of a grieving mom lashing out at the woman inadvertently responsible for her son’s death—and how daring this act feels. (“Blood sloshed around inside Kathryn’s head. The skin around her mouth tingled. Time passed, a second or a minute or ten.”) She captures the precipice between the expectant joy and wariness of a first-time dad. She tracks the jarring sensation of a teen recognizing that a friend’s parent, and his own parents, have flaws.
Those disappointed that Packer chose to publish stories instead of another novel needn’t worry: The narratives in Swim Back to Me add up to a satisfying whole that will linger in the mind.