Kristen Nathan reviews Susan Hope Lanier’s debut short story collection, The Game We Play
Decisions, decisions. Many of them come to us throughout the day. Some are as simple as what flavor of coffee to get, but some carry the burden of negative consequences. These consequences can cause us to do whatever it takes to avoid them—to save ourselves from trouble, to save face or avoid our true weaknesses. Some may view it as a game or a test of strength and character.
In the short stories presented in The Game We Play, Susan Hope Lanier covers this real struggle of humans. With ten uniquely formatted stories, Lanier gets the reader asking, “What are you willing to do to save yourself?” Another thought that will be hard to ignore, “How much does a person allow themselves to think of others before making a split-second decision?” Many of these stories featured cases where an instant choice was required by the main character, and they chose to put themselves first without considering the repercussions.
As a person who has the tendency to get a bit wordy, I find writing an impactful short story one of the biggest challenges as a writer. I avoid them when looking for books to read because I am convinced most do not have what it takes to write brevity pieces that do not leave the reader unsatisfied. It was Lanier’s title choice that actually piqued my interest enough to give the book a chance, and that was one split decision I do not regret making.
“Night Hawk” and “Now that All Danger is Averted” were two stories leaving me with an unexpected punch to the gut. By being written in a cryptic nature, I was required to use my brain to decode the actual situation. This is not a short story collection that can be passively gone through; it requires an active mind or the point will be completely missed. In fact, almost every story in this book requires an open-mind because her writing style is not simply straightforward which is a respectable quality.
My favorite story from the collection was the non-linear piece, “Sophie Salmon.” Somehow it made Chicago, a place I have been to more times than I can count, sound like a new enchanting land I wanted to experience. I saw myself a lot in Sophie and her game of ignoring things that may potentially be wrong with us because we are afraid of the results. Whether it be avoiding the doctor because we see the changes happening in our bodies or ignoring that guy because he hasn’t talked to us since our last date and you don’t want to be the vulnerable one who acts like they care.
Many of the characters Lanier writes about have a brutal honesty about them, but most of it is admitted internally, which is part of the game. Maybe we don’t all play this game, but many of us try to hide how messed up we are because it is an invitation for our vulnerabilities to be taken advantage of. A common thread I found in these stories is that the characters had to make a choice between self-sacrifice and self-preservation. Unfortunately the path of self-preservation can sometimes lead to the destruction of others along the way, which can be a tough lesson to learn.
Despite feeling disappointed with the last story, “At Bat,” which I completely glazed over because it felt so different from the rest of the book, I finished feeling impressed with Lanier’s ability to write powerful short stories. The collection could be finished in one sitting, which actually may be the best way to digest the book because of how well the pieces complement each other. One or just a few of them on their own would not convey the same message or feel nearly as impactful. Although it ended on a note that didn’t connect overall in my eyes, I still was left realizing that life is going to throw many choices at us in a day, and if we are not careful, we could end up losing someone we love or ourselves forever.
The Game We Play
Susan Hope Lanier
Curbside Splendor Publishing