Better Times by Sara Batkie
Nebraska Press, September 2018
156 pages / Amazon
Emerging author, Sara Batkie, has unleashed a sense of remorse for what could have been and might never be with her first short story collection Better Times. Featuring nine stories split into three sections – “The Recent Past,” “The Modern Age,” and “The World to Come” – Better Times navigates the dark and murky depths of the seemingly calm seas that are women’s lives. Batkie focuses on a range of characters, from young girls to matured women, who struggle with matters involving familial relationships, gender roles, sexual violence, feelings of loss, and even climate change. By seamlessly weaving in an impression of the mysterious within the mundane, Batkie has created stories laden with the poignant awareness of loss and uncertainty that reflect the strains of women of the past, present, and future. Throughout every story, Batkie splendidly employs various literary conventions, including but not limited to her use of syntax, symbolism, and subtext, to evoke a haunting loneliness across the whole collection that traps the reader in its grasp and, much like the characters themselves, leaves us yearning for the clichéd and unattainable “better times.”
In her opening story, “When Her Father Was an Island,” we explore the journey of a daughter who dreams of her father in lieu of ever meeting him. Taking place during World War II, Maemi is born after her father is stationed on an island outpost from which he never returns, leaving her with a grief-ridden mother and a lonely existence. The hypotaxis style of connected sentences allows Batkie to follow Maemi from adolescence to adulthood and to display the consequences of growing up with a missing-in-action father. The mystery behind her father’s disappearance bleeds into her everyday life, staining her relationships with others to the point at which she marries a “man unlike any she had ever known, which allowed her to believe he could be like her father” (10). Maemi’s situation, although unique in its circumstances, is one that many people face in their lives and that they can relate to on a personal level. Growing up with a missing parent allows for the cultivation of dreams and hopes of who they may be and how they might behave. However, more often than not those dreams and hopes either go unanswered or are dashed definitively. By giving us a glimpse into the shadows that her missing father causes in Maemi’s life, Batkie effectively places her readers into the mind of a woman who is trapped by her own blood.
Batkie masterfully employs symbolism in “Laika,” developing it within the interests of her own character. Set in 1957, the story centers on a girl in a home for “troubled women” who becomes fixated with the voyage of the first animal carried into space orbit, the dog Laika. Although the curiosity in space exploration seems appropriate to the time, in the height of the Space Race, Batkie implements Laika’s story as an allegory for her protagonist’s thoughts regarding the girls’ situations in the home, including her own. Laika, although destined for greatness, was always fated to an early death, and Batkie writes, “It was a hopelessness there’s no helping. Like Laika. Like all of us,” to voice the girl’s tether to Laika’s story (21). The girl’s infatuation with Laika is not born out of simple interest, but rather from a shared sympathy between the dog’s journey, and her own. Ultimately, Batkie’s application of the real, simultaneously groundbreaking yet heartbreaking story of Laika to her protagonist’s character, elicits the feelings of fear and anxiety associated with the possibility of being forgotten from her readers.
Batkie also addresses topics often deemed taboo by Western society, as evident in her modern story “Cleavage,” about a woman, Nan, who undergoes a mastectomy. The story focuses on Nan’s emotions throughout this trying time in her life, grappling with the way she sees herself following the mastectomy as well as with the feelings associated with her phantom breast. To emphasize Nan’s circumstances Batkie utilizes rhythmic mimesis, her sentences following the monotonous beat of a heart monitor. From Nan’s perspective, Batkie describes, “The stitches were the worst: the skin pulled tight, bound together with thick black string, a nest of spiders instead of a breast” (72). Not only does the descriptive language reflect Nan’s revulsion with her body’s appearance, but the lethargic pacing of the sentence imitates the sounds and surroundings associated with a cancer diagnosis, further exposing the harsh reality of a topic often ignored by society.
Batkie’s closing story, “Those Who Left and Those Who Stayed,” is an outward comment on climate change and its effect on our impending future. Although the story of an Alaskan town split in two, sending nine of its residents adrift into the ocean on an ice floe, seems quite straightforward, Batkie manages to lace the story with subtext that reveals a different message altogether. In Alicia’s dreams of the sea “leaping up to swallow them whole,” and Ms. Kimball’s connection between the appearance of the everlasting ice beneath her feet and what she’d “imagined the clouds of heaven to look like,” Batkie reveals that the true message of this story is not necessarily one on climate change, but rather the uncertainty of survival in the near future (131). By including various character’s thoughts about the situation that they are in Batkie admirably manages to slip in the theme of the story amidst notions of climate change, which relates to her other stories in its sense of melancholic nostalgia for a time that has yet to be seen.
Although this book breeds feelings of loss and hopelessness, it does so in the commendable attempt to interrogate the notion that “better times” existed or will exist for women. Its integration of the fantastical amidst the ordinary reflects the idea that regardless of what is currently believed, better times for women are still only dreams that have yet to be attained. By focusing her stories on women of the past, the present, and the future, Batkie emphasizes that better times have been a cliché that have been constantly acknowledged throughout the years, yet never addressed with the intention of making them a reality. All nine stories, each with their individual characters and their own, unique conflicts, lure you in and instill a call to action in your mind: better times are still only found in dreams, and it’s time to wake up.
Noam Hezroni grew up in Bellevue, Washington and is currently a student at the University of Washington. She enjoys traveling with her family and learning about history and other cultures. You’ll most likely find her reading a a good book in her free time or exploring the nature the Pacific Northwest has to offer (which is beautiful and plentiful!).