The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico
I’m finally finding my feet with short stories after decades of not really getting them; collections like The Lucky Ones are responsible for this change of heart, for the stories within these covers are stunningly good. Pachico was born in Cambridge, but grew up in Colombia, and that is where the majority of these are set. The stories are all set during a twenty year time period from 1993-2013, but are not chronological.
In the first story , Lucky, it’s 2003, and a tweenager is allowed to stay behind with the maid, while her parents and brother go off to a house party for the weekend in the mountains at the Montoya ranch:
Mariela Montoya will be there too, of course: most likely wearing an oversized T-shirt, glowering in the corner, sucking on the tip of her long black braid, and they’ll turn away from each other gracefully without even a kiss on the cheek, let along a greeing. Hi Mariela, Stephanie will never say. It’s been so long. How have you been?
So no, she tells her mother again, but thank you very much, and she brushes strands of hair away from her eyes, smiling sweetly.
So Stephanie stays, and then discovers the maid has disappeared and a man is waiting outside the front door, the only way out of their compound. Stephanie retreats into a bunker mentality, but how long can she last? It is utterly terrifying yet dreamlike at the same time – Pachico’s prose is the stuff of a living hallucinatory nightmare.
Lemon Pie was even stronger in its vision. Five years later, in 2008, a young American English professor is kept captive in the jungle. He’s been there for two years, guarded by the same trio of guerilla soldiers, two men and a young woman who wears glittery hair bands. Pachico doesn’t spare us from the trench foot, the awful parasites that burrow under the skin which have to be squeezed out, the awfulness of having to live in such unsanitary conditions. The Profe gets by giving lectures on Hamlet to an audience of rocks, sticks and ferns during the day or Thinking and Picturing – trying to remember the tiniest details of his apartment. All the while through this story we are waiting, for it begins:
Something is going to happen today. He just knows it. Call it a hunch, a gut sense from how roughly Pollo rapped the metal spoon against his plate this morning, trying to get the gray lump of oatmeal to fall off. Or maybe the way Julisa’s shoulders hunched up as he marched brusquely past her to the latrines with the shit encrusted shovel, or the random, loud giggle César let out before abruptly falling silent as he sat on the overturned bucket, blackening his rifle with a tube of printer’s ink.
It wasn’t until I read on that I realised that the stories were linked by more than their location and time-frames. We will meet the same characters again before and after, we’ll see how they came to be where they are and what happens to them later. A subsidiary character in one story will take the lead in another, the linking is very cleverly done. Motifs recur – like Mariela sucking her long black braid, and the whole is infused with coca leaves. Of course, there are a couple that work less well than others, and conversely others, like Junkie Rabbit, will leave you literally reeling. (By the way, rabbits/bunnies are another recurring motif!)
The ghosts of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel lie heavy upon this collection. Escobar was finally killed in a shoot-out in 1993, but the Cali cartel took on the Medellin mantle for some years afterwards, and the years between 1993 and 2013 were the peak of the long conflict in Colombia. Pachico lived in Colombia through this before moving to Portland, Oregon in 2004 to study, and as a teenager back then arguably has a unique perspective on how it affected lives.
In the US, this collection is being marketed as a novel – in the UK as short stories. For me it is a story cycle with the recurring characters and time-lines. However you style it, this collection is stunningly good and marks the debut of a young author to watch. I loved it!
Source: Review copy for the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel.
Visit Julianne Pachico’s website here.