Probably for the first time ever, I spent months reading one book. Many would take that as a sign that I didn’t like it, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Amina Gautier’s collection of stories At-Risk is quite affecting; stark in its unapologetic depictions of young, black, impoverished youth. I savoured each story after reading it, and although it’s been many weeks since I’ve read some of the stories, I still think back to the characters I’ve met between these pages.
I read another collection of Gautier’s a few years ago, you can find the review here. I enjoyed it, and similar to this book, it wrung me out emotionally. At-Risk is a wonderful example of short stories done well. These aren’t really linked, although the last story in this award-winning collection features two boys who are murdered in the first story (that’s not really a spoiler, and to be honest, I didn’t even notice it until I read it in another review of the book so no big deal either way). The important thing is to pay attention to the characters’ inner lives, not the external factors they face.
Gautier purposefully includes youths who fall under stereotypes from an urban black neighborhood: a girl pregnant at 16, teenagers who do drugs outside their private school, a hard-working teen desperate to succeed and make her struggling family proud of her. But what’s special about this book is that these stereotypes aren’t pushed back against, but explored further. Instead of seeing a stereotype and moving along to the next person, we delve deeper into each life, learning more about their family, their desires, their fears, and most importantly their dreams. Gautier successfully humanizes a segment of our population that people typically only see as statistics so we get a clear view into the homes of society’s most vulnerable. We also see a wide range of circumstances which of course yields different outcomes for each. Again, we push further into the lives of these people not for our entertainment, or as a moral lesson, but to simply get to know them better.
Aside from the EXCEPTIONAL characterization on display there are some pretty engaging plot lines. Some stories don’t have much happen in them, while others include some really interesting turns and developments. There aren’t many ‘twists’ to these narratives, but enough to keep us reading and turning the pages. The connections you’ll make with each character is truly the best part of this book, and for that reason, I highly recommend it.