In the short story collection Sour Pricks, Mari Reiza introduces us to dark or dreary turning points in life, to uncomfortable realizations, and to the internal thoughts of her vivid characters. These short stories are thematically linked, showing simmering resentments and slow-moving conflicts, although the characters and locations are quite different in each story.
We meet characters who are usually discontented, and sometimes self-serving, but this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily unlikeable. In one section of Schools Panel, we hear the inner thoughts of a suburban mom sitting at a schools panel, listening to the underwhelming school reps and eyeing the other mothers, but this is also a microcosm for comments on gender and social class. Readers are shown, here and in the other stories, how small decisions can have rippling, wide-ranging consequences.
In one short story, a harried mom’s playground conversation with odd male nanny changes how she looks at other children, and not in an uplifting way. The entire story happens in just a few hours, and centers around conversation, not action, but readers are left feeling that afterschool park visits are irrevocably changed.
In another story, Reiza mixes a collection of awkward, unpleasant conversations with the self-conscious ordering of fashionable fusion food for a day-in-the-life at a trendy restaurant. These conversations blend to tell a story of false fronts on many levels. Again, the action of this story takes place in just one day, and at just one location, and focuses on dialogue. There’s a vivid feeling of eavesdropping on real people here, with all the guilty delight and emotional cringing that eavesdropping could imply.
In a third story, a young man travels to accept a strange inheritance from his aging aunt, access to all of her wealth except the one item he’s actually interested in. Like many gifts, it comes with strings, but his auntie seems to be the only one not pulling on them. Through the descriptions of eccentrics in the aunt’s neighborhood and the decline of her home, readers realize this is less a story of one nephew and aunt, and actually a commentary on aging and decline.
Throughout this short story collection, we see characters struggling with relationships and decisions. These scenes create a mood, and readers who enjoy atmospheric descriptions won’t be disappointed. These stories focus on relationships that constrict and situations that trap. There are rarely uplifting moments or overtly satisfying conclusions, although there are a few bright moments. There’s a guilty pleasure to be found in the catty remarks that characters make or think about other characters.
This type of internal monologue is where Reiza shines. Whether her characters are snarky or personally reflective, anxious or vengeful, she invites readers in to hear their thoughts. These internal thoughts are both natural and vulnerable, which helps draw readers into short stories that often lack a typical story arc. These are more portraits of an emotional state or of a particular point in a relationship, than of a conflict-and-resolution.