“I am lost”—a short sentence in the first paragraph of “The Chinese Lesson”— sums up the main theme of A.M. Homes’s latest collection of short stories, Things You Should Know. Just like many of her stories, “The Chinese Lesson” begins deep within the mind of the protagonist: a man is imagining himself as a traffic controller looking for submarines. In fact, he is looking for his sickly, lonely, and lost Chinese mother-in-law. In their own ways, both of these characters embody the idea of alienation, which runs throughout Homes’s book; the idea of losing yourself, losing others, and feeling empty haunts the entire collection and unifies it in a captivating way. In “Do Not Disturb,” for instance, we meet a woman who faces cancer and shuts everyone out of her life, declaring that she has “no interest in being human.” The short “Things You Should Know,” which skillfully ties together the entire group of stories, describes the feeling of having missed the day at school when they hand out the directions—in this case, the directions to life.
Homes’s language is masterful and sensitive. A husband faces the distance imposed by his wife resentfully: “She looks like a rat, like something that’s been chewed on and spit out, like something that someone tried to electrocute and failed.” Homes describes the image of loneliness with painful precision, and shows how frustration and alienation can mingle with a strange form of understanding. In “Rockets Round the Moon,” Homes vividly describes the sensations of a lonely boy who finds a haven in summers spent with his neighbors: “Mrs. Henry started gliding around the kitchen in a definite rhythm—one-two-three: refrigerator-sink-stove—as though cooking were dancing, as though she could waltz with hamburgers.”
Certain personalities and quirks are a little overused. Multiple stories contain images of a coyote changing into a duck; and in both “Do not Disturb” and “Please Remain Calm,” we meet unemotional doctors who are obsessed with stocking up and preparing for disasters. These repetitions jolt the reader with a strange sense of dejà vu, as if the author were trying to place her favorite image in different frames.
In the end, we are left with some wonderfully human and colorful portraits and images, the only weakness of which are excess and redundancy. However, the strength with which Homes portrays loneliness and builds up powerful dominating images overrides the imperfections; indeed, the repetitions serve a larger purpose. They relate different variations on the theme of loneliness, and intensify their unyielding heaviness; and in the end, it is this very weight which gives the collection its power.