Author peels back life's complex layers

Above the Houses

By Susan Engberg. Delphinium Books. 245 pages. $23.95.

Susan Engberg writes for grown-ups. Her stories are nuanced and smart, layered and lingering; like a taste for wine, like a vacation alone, they are not for people who fear thinking about the subtleties. It's what her characters do, what they are about, at their cores, the transforming power of careful assessment, particularly from the verge of a shifting landscape.

“Above the Houses,” Engberg's fourth collection, showcases her quiet talents with lives that look a lot like our own, layered with the tensions of possible dramas avoided, other paths suggested, the small miracles of resonant connection between human beings. It is the sort of book that feels like a lesson learned, advice tendered, the sort of book that you know you will consider for years to come.

The people in “Above the Houses” are wives and mothers and husbands and fathers, people described in terms of the web of their relationships.

The title story gives us Joan, a professor's wife, unpacking their house in a new town for a new job for what feels like one time too many. In the middle of the night, in unfamiliar surroundings, she has walked into a wall and blackened her eye, and now she has to go to a faculty cocktail party next door. But the beaten way she looks in some way mirrors how she feels; how will she come to recognize herself in a new place once again? She glimpses her reflection in the lives of her neighbors, sympathizing with the awkward daughter of an aggressively beautiful professor, the cooped-up dog of the lawyer down the street.

She recalls the darker privacies of her old neighborhood: her friend's confessions at her husband's deathbed, the toddler she found wandering the sidewalk in the aftermath of his grandmother's murder, bloody fingerprints on his bottle. The cumulative way Engberg suggests the range of everyday abuses we visit upon the people we love is ultimately startling, not so much for the abuses themselves, but for our drive to bear up under them, to continue on.

In the story “Moon,” Engberg describes an exhausted medical resident and his new bride, Nina, “like two silent dolls whose owner has left the room.” Nina struggles with the differences between what seemed to be a good idea in New York, and what this Midwestern reality has made of her decision to marry. Even physical connection is difficult to reconcile: after lovemaking, “she was happy. She was also miserable.”

So many of Engberg's stories concern the fluxes of marriage, new and old and aspired to, newly shifted from one state to another, and she is fluent in the undercurrents that describe these changes. Waiting for her husband, Nina resigns herself: “Perhaps, she thought, the only cure for the questions of marriage was more marriage and yet more.”

In “Beginning,” a recent widow embarks on her first new relationship, and recalls the awkward young boys she dated before she met her husband, how they made her the woman she was to become. In “Time's Body,” a grieving husband steels himself for his wife's funeral, the fissures in his numbness making for heartbreaking glimpses.

Stamina is thread that connects the stories, and strength, an attention to the tireless presence of natural cycles. Engberg seems to be saying, for all the seclusion we build for ourselves, we enter into the same bonds, face the same choices, all sleep beneath the same enduring sky above.

Ashley Warlick, a Charlotte native, has published three novels; the most recent is “Seek the Living.”