In Kim Magowan’s aptly titled debut short-story collection, Undoing, characters are frequently caught with their eyes on the past, trying to discern where it all went wrong, whether that concerns a marriage that survives infidelity only to fade later into oblivion or the premature termination of an affair. A young girl hopes to make sense of her seduction by the father of the child she babysits, while a new wife surveys her youthful indiscretions for clues as to how to forge an emotional bond with her anorexic stepdaughter. Through it all, struggles become universal, perhaps inevitable. Characters often reappear: older, wiser, seeking to break the cycle of dysfunction. The ultimate effect is a feeling of community, of shared mistakes, leaving the individuals lonely but not alone.
In this way, Magowan’s collection moves well beyond reflection. Ignoring the wreckage of their respective pasts, her characters are willing to look ahead, to try again. Indeed, there is much pain and lasting harm to go around, but these are curious, resilient people, open to the idea that the solutions, not just the problems, lie within. They hope, despite much evidence to the contrary, that they can undo what has been done.
“Many of these delicate, thoughtful stories are devoted to unpacking the intricacies of infidelity in long-term relationships. Thought indeed takes up a lot of space here: The characters are prone to a level of analysis (of themselves, of their partners) that borders on obsession. The strongest of these slim narratives capture the claustrophobia of being caught in a disintegrating partnership in which two people have wrapped themselves around each other so tightly that neither one can move without causing the other pain. Ben, who is trying to conceal an affair from his wife, Miriam, thinks about Miriam, thinks about thinking about Miriam, and then thinks about the way that he thinks about how he thinks about Miriam. “He reflected, as he had frequently in recent weeks, upon the difficulty of assessing when his behavior was suspicious. There was too much latitude for suspicion, was the problem. Being cooperative and helpful was potentially suspicious, as was being romantic. But so was being brusque, distracted, critical or cranky. He felt like he was navigating some tricky video game, quicksand everywhere; then he questioned why this mental picture dressed itself as a video game, instead of some real (if still imaginary) bayou. Was Ben that severed from reality these days, that his fantasies packaged themselves in pixels?”
The way that these multiplying layers of consideration and interpretation can, in fact, move you further from the truth of a relationship is a theme that Magowan ably explores. But by the end of the nearly 30 individual stories in the collection, the cyclical returns to the same set of ideas start to feel repetitive rather than iterative. Thankfully, a handful of linked stories provide much-needed space for expansion, offering a sense of psychological movement rather than continual, stifling return.”
—The New York Times, October 2018
“I literally felt undone reading Kim Magowan’s Undoing. Though a work of fiction, the poet in me was left hanging at the edge of most lines. A beautiful book that felt like existing inside a dream for the pleasurable hours it took me to wind my way through the surreal treatment of
—Suzanne Burns, author of The Veneration of Monsters
“Burgeoning clouds of longing and desire cast shadows across the young characters in Kim Magowan’s debut collection, darkening their features, leaving them exposed and illuminating their innermost identities in flashes of literary lightning. Alternatingly forlorn and hopeful, these jeweled stories bristle with transgression, seduction and the frissons of transcendent possibility.”
—Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son and Fortune Smiles