The Secret Games of Words, Karen Stefano
1 Glimpse Press, 2015
Reviewed by Kelsie Plesac
Karen Stefano’s The Secret Games of Words is a thought-provoking collection of compelling and complex characters who tackle difficult situations with wit and heart-breaking honesty. Each of these 23 stories resonate with the reader, making the act of reading an emotional journey.
Perhaps the collection’s greatest strength is demonstrated in Stefano’s ability to pull hard at the reader’s heartstrings. A common theme through many of the stories is the caretaking of an ailing parent or elderly relative, and much of the emotional content is developed in these scenarios.Take this excerpt from “How to Read Your Father’s Obituary:”
“Do not recall his last weeks, when all you did was nag him to eat better and get his hearing checked. And do not recall his last days, especially not the day you forced him to go to the hospital and he looked at you through eyes puddled with tears and told you he didn’t want to go, and when you asked why not he said, ‘Because I’m afraid I won’t come back this time.’ Do not think about that.”
The scenarios are all very similar, but Stefano skillfully makes each character’s pain unique, which, in turn, makes them very human. Even though many of the circumstances in these stories are similar, Stefano drops little gems to make it all new again.
The emotional content of the collection is further intensified by a few brief, but powerful moments. Stefano places matter-of-fact statements in the midst of her stories that pack a severe and jarring punch.
In “Different but the Same” a man looks back on his childhood spent with his friend Mundo. At one point, regarding his family life as a youth, he recalls, “1969, age 6, my father packs two paper grocery sacks with all of his worldly possessions, slaps my mother one last time and heads toward the door.”
In “Rescue” a woman attempts to save another woman drowning in a river. When she realizes she will be unsuccessful she drowns the woman. Stefano writes, “I press her head underwater and hold it, feeling her fight start to go, watching the bubbles get smaller until finally, they stop.”
The succinctness of these passages is exactly what makes them so powerful, and Stefano peppers many statements like these throughout the collection, shocking the reader to emotional reaction.
There is also much to say on the craft of The Secret Game of Words. Stefano beautifully uses imagery to revive the ordinary and renew the reader’s perspective.Another treat in the collection is the nearly lyrical quality of Stefano’s sentences. If it were not for some lengthy and lyrical descriptions, Stefano’s matter-of-fact statements would not pack as much as a punch. These longer sentences, describing anything from a father-daughter relationship to a hospital room, are written with such beauty that I felt compelled as a reader to reread them.
The Secret Game of Words is a lovely work that I would recommend for a myriad of reasons, the main reason being that it connects. The tragedy of the stories is laced with humor (Mundo in “Different But The Same” lives in a building called the Pitford Arms Apartments) and touching moments (a man helping a young girl pick out a pair of sunglasses in “Visitor”).
The stories mirror life in that wherever there is pain there is humor. Wherever there is crazy there is an element of calm. Animosity and kindness can live within the same person. Much like individual lives, these stories are nuanced and unique and, in my opinion, recommendable to anybody.