Review: Cravings: An Inventory of Human Life, by Garnett Kilberg Cohen

Reviewed by Guest Author Arieon Whittsey

Cravings, by Chicago author Garnett Kilberg Cohen, offers an exploration of life and the moments that define it through an unlikely group of characters across 12 short stories. 

In the true fashion of a "girl dinner", the collection of short stories begins with Cassie's pursuit of a jar of olives in "Hors d'oeuvres". The desire to eat the hors d'oeuvres hidden away for her parents' party platters. The focal point of the story is the craving for olives, but the overall story is ripe with the underlying desire to be seen by her father whose avoidance of her allows her to indulge in the sacred jar of brine. The jar of olives is completely devoured as Cassie moves on to another, only to drop them and shatter the glass. Along with shards of the olive jar, her life fractures in a way that will leave her piecing together moments, “Life seemed—alternatively, paradoxically, simultaneously, and inexplicably—totally meaningless and so ripe with significance that every word, image, and gesture were connected to another moment in her life. "Hors d'oeuvres" begins to shape the world of cravings: an inventory of human life in which we want, fail, and wonder, always striving to comprehend something that can unify the fractures of our lives into a coherent and meaningful whole.

The collection adeptly grounds the reader in each story from the very first sentence. "Ogden, Ohio" stands out for this reason. The story commences with the return of a hometown relic from the local high school, arriving in town in a poorly painted green hearse. Ogden, Ohio is portrayed as painfully ordinary, the type of small town stereotyped in movies: homecoming kings and queens, a wealth gap separated by a river, and the sometimes-painful inability of its residents to leave the town.

The speaker reflects on the town and herself as one of "Those who remained—the would-have-beens, could-have-beens, the losers, and a few people simply taking breaks." There is an ominous feel to the story that is never fully realized, trapped under a fog of the speaker's fear of being stuck in a place where everyone wants to leave but never does. Kilberg Cohen does not fear the complications of the characters and the real lives they represent. In every story in the collection, the author avoids the need to tie everything up neatly. In this story, the desire to move forward is met with the time lost waiting and wanting, only to someday wonder, "Was there ever a moment when I was right there in the middle? When just enough was behind me and just enough ahead?"

Author Garnett Kilberg Cohen

The wide range of ages within the collection speaks for itself. From children to the elderly, Kilberg Cohen includes them all with a unique perspective, managing to make each character feel real and wholly themselves. Ace, in the story "Wheels," is a great example of this. He is the oldest character in the collection, contemplating his old age, the way people perceive him, and the main conflict of his children deciding to take away his car keys. Ace comes across as an upbeat character, but there is palpable grief in much of his thoughts, primarily related to the people he has lost, including his beloved wife Marianne. Ace effectively communicates what many of us do not often hear from the older individuals in our lives, which is that aging brings its own grief: societal invisibility, loss of mobility, relationships, and an ever-growing yearning that becomes harder to remedy in an aging body.

The collection also tells stories from places that are overlooked, such as the mountains of Montana in "Goodbye Party" or the story of a pig farmer finding friendship in "Feast." Regardless of the region, age, or gender, Garnett Kilberg Cohen delves deeper into the complications of desire and the ways in which many of our cravings, for better or worse, are mostly the same. 

Cravings by Garnett Kilberg Cohen is available for purchase at most bookstores and through the University of Wisconsin Press.

Arieon Whittsey (They/Them) is a creative from Illinois, currently based in Chicago. They recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor's degree in creative writing.

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