Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
A steely-eyed collection of short stories centered on Haitian life, from the Dominican Republic to Florida
Winner of the Ann Petry Award, Juliana Lamy’s unflinching debut short story collection, You Were Watching From the Sand, is infused with Haitian culture and mysticism, yet enmeshed with violence. From stolen moments of tenderness between two teen boys to a disappointed mother seeking guidance from her departed grandfather to control her wild daughter, Lamy’s fiction examines our closest relationships, with all of their pains, trials, and affections.
In “Muscle Memory,” two friends from impoverished families must find a way to keep up with the wealthy kids at their middle school, grappling with the jealousy and what-ifs of comparing themselves to their peers. “July in New Orleans” follows a young man named Pocket, who has an unexpected encounter when he recognizes that the man who walks into the diner he is in is none other than Death.
The titular character in “Sylpha” tries to manipulate her dreams in hopes of giving birth to twins like the women in her family before her. In “Eli,” a young woman has an unlikely reaction when she is kidnapped on her way to buy froyo. Perhaps most touchingly, “Mermaids” tells the story of a young girl and her trans friend, referred to only as “He” or “Him,” and all that threatens their treasured relationship.
Themes of queer love, devastating hardship, and supernatural appearances and events occur often in Lamy’s collection. With attentive eyes, she portrays young life, children and teens, caught in cycles of suffering. The people most often marginalized—the ones left behind, the ones abused, the ones without options, the ones who hide themselves or their love—become the central characters in every story. They show great resilience, but through triumphs or losses, there is a realism and honesty to these stories that keeps the narratives from feeling flat or clichéd.
Even when they are otherworldly in origin, each character in You Were Watching From the Sand is magnetic in their well-realized humanity and complexity. Paired with Lamy’s lyrical prose, each story emerges sharp and arresting. In each vignette, life, promise, or possibility slip away like sand through someone’s fingers, until all that is left is the rawness and inescapable tension of being alive in a contested body.
In You Were Watching From the Sand, Juliana Lamy writes with a distinctly elegant voice and a potent charisma, so that story after burning story wedges itself into the reader’s heart. By turns mysterious, inexplicable, and ordinary, this is a layered collection that hits closer to the heart after every read.
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