Domesticated Wild Things by Xhenet Aliu, published by University of Nebraska Press
Reviewed by Suzanne Herman
At the heart of each of Xhenet Aliu's eleven stories in Domesticated Wild Things is a powerful sense—a smell, a taste, a sound—that isn't always positive. The stories in this debut collection center around the ugliness that can penetrate all, surrounded by the biting humor and absurdity that makes life bearable. Aliu herself is a native of Waterbury, Connecticut, an area whose brass industry attracted large waves of Eastern European immigrants, her parents being two. Set in non-descript but familiarly seedy settings, these stories tell of the children of immigrants looking for connection and forever aspiring. There are wrestling matches, bears, pet snakes, and many women looking for a way out. The voice is disarmingly causal, filled with lines like "Sam nodded, but the only thing he understood was that the evening had not gone as planned, and he wanted it never to end." The dialogue puts the reader directly into worlds where seemingly strong men have crippling weaknesses, where the young act too mature, where wild things are constantly struggling not to be domesticated.
In the strongest story, "Feather Ann," a young camp counselor must face the camper who stole her shoes. It is a perfect example of how Aliu's characters are at once sad but lighthearted, troubled but dealing. Sherman Alexie calls the collection "extremely funny and mordant," which "Feather Ann" bears out:
“You tell Feather Ann that you don't know what ‘it’ she's referring to.
‘Then you have bigger problems than your shoes,’ she says.
You walk away, realizing that this might be true.”
The sentences in Domesticated Wild Things may be simple, some of the dialogue crude. But this is how most of us real people live our lives, simply and crudely. One is left with the ache Alui tells us is inherent of the second generation immigrant: it is the drive for something slightly out of reach, paired with the beautiful ability to laugh when that something never moves.
Domesticated Wild Things is Xhenet Aliu's debut short story collection and winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Her fiction has been published in Glimmer Train, Hobart, and the Barcelona Review. She has received multiple scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and a grant from The Elizabeth George Foundation, among other awards. Aliu has worked as a secretary, waitress, entertainment journalist, private investigator, librarian/archivist, and more. She lives in Athens, Georgia.
The University of Nebraska Press was founded in 1941 as a publisher of scholarly works. Through its trade imprint, Bison Books, Nebraska publishes general-interest works in Western Americana.
Suzanne Herman is an undergraduate student at Barnard College. She is the editoral intern for The Literarian.