Books by Laura Chester

<< Rancho Weirdo | Review republished from The Short Review


Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Rancho Weirdo is a quirky collection of short fiction: 17 stories mostly set on the US/Mexican border, but also flitting to New York and Paris. At times disturbing or monstrous, other times tender or funny, we are drawn into a world where strange anxieties are explored, misplaced expectations let down, and prejudices exposed. These are not pretty or gentle worlds. These are stories where a woman has apparitions of an Apache Indian called "Grit", girls are sent to psych camps, and a Vietnamese house-sitter becomes aggressively mad. There is a clear sense of voice in all her stories: a Southwest drawl or the voice of a child or teenager and I found the writing fast, vivid and edgy. 

The settings are not familiar to me, but Laura Chester draws them vividly for the reader, so that we can inhabit the desert where ‘transients’ cross the border and the ranches where holiday-makers stay. In the first few stories we get to grips with the territory very quickly. In Bye-Ya Con Dios a teenage girl grapples with her relationship with her dad on a bird-watching holiday where there are signs saying "TRAVEL CAUTION: SMUGGLING AND ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS MAY BE ENCOUNTERED IN THIS AREA" ; in Law of Lead opens her house up to transients and then gets annoyed when every "Tom, Dick and Jorgés" wants a house tour; and in La Tortuga we take in a landscape where "Every few feet, another blue plastic bottle, along with the occasional shoe, used baby diaper, encrusted jeans". 

The stories explore border issues in a darkly funny way and bravely expose the ignorance and prejudices of the everyday complaints and worries of people living or visiting the area. The best of these "border stories", was Law of Lead, a hilarious story that exposed the underlying prejudices of a local do-gooder who wants to help the "transients" that pass by her house. I laughed out loud at this story, as her "good intentions" go to pieces. She gives them yoga blankets and burritos, but panics when they want to swim in her pool and start smoking "something funny". It’s a real culture/class clash and very entertaining to read. 

This was what I most enjoyed about Rancho Weirdo. I felt there is some honest and wonderful insight into how the mind works, the "nagging voices" inside the mind, people’s rose-tinted expectations as well as their beliefs (misinformed and ignorant at best, out and out racist at worst) about other groups of people. Underneath the humour, the reality in these stories is frightening, for example in Bye-Ya Con Dios the narrator exposes her dad’s view that gay people and AIDS are "like a leaky pen getting all over everything". These views are gently challenged in these stories, or set up so readers can see how ridiculous they are and decide for ourselves. 

Other stories in Rancho Weirdo focus on peoples’ expectations of life and each other, and our struggle with a post 9/11 society. These stories are more sad then funny. For example, The Right Skates is a beautiful piece of writing, capturing the pain that is felt after a relationship is over, before a person is ready to move on. "I crept back to the sofa in the darkness, as if I had fallen on slick, black ice, way out in the middle of nowhere." 

I didn’t find the collection consistently brilliant; some stories passed me by a little. But I want to mention two stories that I felt were a cut above the rest. Don’t Tell Daddy is one of the most powerful stories in the book, exploring the experience of young girls in a "psych camp", a "fixer-up camp". They call themselves the Minnehahas, and cut themselves, ride horses and sit around the camp fire where they are supposed to solve their problems. In Curse of the Forced Flower, an exceptional story, the rich and educated narrator ignores the signs that her Vietnamese house-guest has serious mental health problems: 

"Maybe her family members had been abused in the war, and she was psychologically damaged. It certainly was a piece of American history I was ashamed of, though at the time, I had protested, and gone to various anti-war rallies. Who was I to talk about her strange behaviour?" 

The result of her ignorance is devastating to both of them, and is a disturbing read. The author is not afraid to confront issues in both these stories and explore them to their full violent end. 

As a final note, Rancho Weirdo is a beautifully produced collection. The stories are complemented by 50 beautiful colour drawings by Korean artist Haeri Yoo. These images are simple, stark, oddly violent and sexual, part human, part animal, with sometimes unidentifiable pain. They are not illustrations for the stories, although the disturbing, and sad quality of many of the images reflects something of the themes. These drawings are a real treat and make this collection of short stories quite unique.

Read one of the stories from this collection in the New Works Review