In Battleborn, a collection of short stories, Claire Vaye Watkins recreates the rich and complicated history of the desert regions of California and Nevada. The title is derived from one of Nevada’s nicknames, The Battle Born State, which it earned by becoming a state during the Civil War. Similarly, the ghosts of past battles are never far away from the characters’ minds as they struggle through life.
Watkins succeeds at using regional details to create tangible and realistic settings even as her stories jump from a hotel room in Vegas to a trailer in the desert, to a mining town in the 1800s, to San Francisco, to a brothel. Though they inhabit very different circumstances, every character confronts loneliness and the desire to make fleeting moments of happiness permanent. “The Last Thing We Need” is told through a series of letters a man writes to a complete stranger; only in this informal relationship is he able to open up about a violent piece of his past he can’t even share with his wife. In “The Archivist,” a recently heartbroken young woman imagines a museum that chronicles her relationship with an uncommitted boyfriend through a series of handmade dioramas.
Watkins is a skillful writer, and while the blunt honesty of her stories can be unsettling at first, they are also entirely captivating. After a few selections, you will long to comfort the characters, but will settle for sobbing alongside their heartache.
($14.82 at barnesandnoble.com)
By Ginny Dominguez