In Matthew Lansburgh’s “Outside is the Ocean,” readers jump around in time to witness snapshots in the troubled tale of a single family. The collection of linked short stories was selected by writer Andre Dubus III as the winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award.
In structure and effect, “Outside is the Ocean” calls to mind “Olive Kitteridge,” the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of linked stories by Elizabeth Strout. Just as Olive exerts a gravity of her own in Strout’s collection, Heike, an immigrant to America who has difficulty maintaining relationships of all kinds, is at the center of Lansburgh’s fictional universe.
Heike is aggrieved and aggravating, underappreciated and overbearing. She is the kind of character who could easily become a caricature with her clumsy English and outsized sense of the world’s unfairness to her. Instead, Lansburgh presents her sympathetically — a woman doing her best to overcome a lifetime of challenges and setbacks, some of her own making, but some imposed upon her.
Stewart, Heike’s son, is the most vividly rendered of the other characters in the collection. His disconnection from his mother is a struggle for both of them, and his desperate attempts to build a life of his own provide much of the book’s emotional weight. Each time the two appear on the page together, the tension and sadness are palpable, and neither is able to rectify the situation.
“Outside is the Ocean” is filled with characters who seem buffeted by a sea of emotions and problems. Lansburgh invites us to empathize and offers the solace of connection for those with struggles — which is, of course, all of us.