Looking Out of Broken Windows by Dan Powell

Reviewed by Beatriz Terrazas, a Carve Literary Services consultant.

Dan Powell’s new collection of short stories Looking Out of Broken Windows made me squirm. Not because the writing is poor or lacks artistry but because each story is so truthfully rendered it’s impossible to not draw parallels and reflect on my own life and that of the people I love. In nearly every instance, a character finds him- or herself morphed into someone unrecognized or transported to a place unintended. The defining theme of this collection may very well be transformation, albeit that unwitting one that happens when we lose focus on where we’re going. I found myself asking characters rather impatiently, “Where did you lose your way?” Readers beware: You may feel like a voyeur with a front row seat to life’s messy intimacies. So intense were some moments that at times I had to look away.

Available now from Salt Publishing.The title story features Frank Zappa, a glazier who specializes in fixing “the metaphorical breaking of literal windows.” Trust me, this story is original and lovely, and I won’t spoil it by explaining. I will, however, share a description of Zappa that delighted me: “The hair upon his head sprouted long and thick, like fur, and a dense beard filled his face, alert dark eyes peering out as if over a hedge. He clamped a chewed pencil in the fierce vice [sic] of this teeth, the end splintered, its charcoal vein exposed.”

Another theme playing out through several stories is motherhood—motherhood lived so fully that a woman loses sight of everything else, and motherhood lost through miscarriage and abortion. If there’s a story I considered a bit cliched it’s “Demand Feeding,” in which the main character is so caught up in her newborn that she wants nothing to do with her husband. Tired topic, I thought. And yet, this was also the story that made me go back to the book’s title page. So authentic was the woman’s point of view that I had a hard time believing a man could have written it. In fact, several of the stories are told through women and lose nothing in terms of credibility.

My favorite among these is “Leaving What’s Left,” a fresh take on a character coming to terms with an abortion years after the fact. It skips judgment and goes to the heart of the loss and nostalgia:

The dress it wears is one I haven’t seen in years, in decades. A mini-skirted floral print that I could never wear now is what’s left of my love, the flowers a yellowing white that could equally be described as fresh cream or off-milk. … It taps its right foot in an impatient manner I recognize as my own. Its frame, the look of it, how it holds itself, how it stands, is composed of memories that missed their chance to be made.

Not every story is weighted with loss and what-ifs. “An Unimagined Woman” brought back the sweet taste of triumphing over personal fears. And “The Bus Shelter” reminded me of the gentler side of ourselves—of how humans can rise to the occasion and help care for one another in creative ways. The final story in the collection, “Storm in a Teacup,” winner of Carve’s 2013 Esoteric Award, is a metaphor for human resilience and our ability to ride out loss of love, trust, even dreams, and emerge ready to give life another go. When Carve first published it, I found it a thing of beauty, and I feel no differently now.

Looking Out of Broken Windows, Salt Publishing, March 2014. Available for purchase at Salt, Amazon UK, and Amazon US.