The Topography of Hidden Stories

Fiction - Literary
211 Pages
Reviewed on 03/02/2021
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Lesley Jones for Readers' Favorite

The Topography of Hidden Stories by Julia MacDonnell is a thought-provoking compilation of short stories that remind us of how far women have come in their right to equality. Each of the women faces their own traumas and personal battles as they search for their own voice and opinions to be heard. However, their views, feelings and ambitions are ignored, mocked and belittled. The stories include a girl made to keep secrets about her abuse and her mother's social life from her sanctimonious, overbearing father. Annie McHugh sets out on a pilgrimage to meet the future President, only to realize that the future leader of the free world is willing to show her more kindness than her own family. Serena is on her way to Washington to have an illegal medical procedure from a back street doctor so she can regain respect from a judgmental and cruel society. A young journalist is a witness to the horrors of the streets where abandoned children are forgotten and the ignored of society are left to fester. Helen struggles to raise her son to respect human life and the dangers of war but a shocking discovery in the guest bedroom brings her worse nightmare to life.

In The Topography of Hidden Stories by Julia MacDonnell, each of these well-written and powerfully vivid stories will touch your emotions deeply. The women attempt to gain respect and acceptance in a world where they were second-class citizens from the moment they were born. Conditioned to be silent and compliant, the women are forced into situations that tear their self-worth to shreds. The characters and storylines were really believable and I immediately resonated with their dreadful situations. Any one of the stories could be lengthened to full novels as the subject matter was so compelling. In River Of Grace, the concept of a young girl being forced to commit such atrocious acts at her age was heartbreaking. My favorite story was Red Stain On Yellow Dress; this was incredibly moving to read. There are great twists to many of the stories which I loved. This is an excellent collection and a true testament to the incredible emotional strength of women.

Jon Michael Miller

Writing masters instruct us to “write what you know.” In Julia MacDonnell’s short story collection, The Topography of Hidden Stories, we learn that she knows families—dictatorial dads, frivolous moms, rough siblings, nursing babies, kooky but wonderful aunts, and every domestic setting imaginable. Especially, she knows Frank Sinatra, the tenement Bronx, and Massachusetts’ Fore River shipyard. Her stories sparkle like rare gems, opals perhaps with their subtle magnificence and their fragility: a mom sneaking off to commit suicide, a little girl losing her new coat at a JFK political stopover, a pubescent girl being roughly initiated by her older sisters, a desperate family next door, teen pregnancy, daughters’ critical observations of their moms, child beggars in Mexico, drug-related murders, Princess Diana’s gowns, giving boys toy guns at Christmas, kids playing Marco Polo, and maladies of many sorts.

Most short stories, of course, are about problems, but Ms. MacDonnell’s renditions are conflicts transformed to majesty, not only by her exquisite wordcraft but by the depth of her compassion for the human condition, especially within families. From the first one, “River of Grace,” I was hooked. That story’s special devastating charm was achieved by the author’s presenting it from the naïve eyes of a little girl who thinks her mom is taking her to a real river. And there’s “Violets” where the grandma mistakenly believes the grandchild’s name is a dedication to her. And Aunt Ceci in “Topography” is simply unforgettable. Writing masters also tell us that in commercial writing the characters change, but in literary writing, it is the reader who changes. Each of Julia MacDonnell’s superb stories in The Topography of Hidden Stories will stay with you, make you see the world around you more deeply, with humor, heartbreaking empathy, and love.

Foluso Falaye

The Topography of Hidden Stories by Julia McDonnell is a collection of 13 short stories about women and girls as they experience changes, dealing with family, and societal limitations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The protagonists share their thoughts, with humor, keenness, and genuineness on different experiences: pregnancy, abortion, seeking approval, witnessing a murder, disagreeing with parents, and more. Follow Annie's observations of her family's love for John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Whistle-Stop. In Weapons of War, Helen fights against her son's love for guns. A murder is seen by a mother and her child in Witness, and they fear they might be the next to be attacked. Embedded in the book are several touching and relatable themes, including cancer, sexual abuse, addiction, poverty, motherhood, and parenthood.

What's better than a book with a captivating story? A book with 13 different captivating stories! I loved how each story in The Topography of Hidden Stories holds a new, delightful experience waiting to be unwrapped like a Christmas gift. My expectations were far exceeded with the historically rich stories, funny and distinct views, and characters, ingenious use of words, and vivid and immersing descriptions. The characters felt so real that I connected with them and felt their emotions even though they are portrayed in a continent and times different from mine. Julia McDonnell ensures that the voices of her characters are strong and memorable. All the stories are exquisite and brilliant, but I can't seem to forget Witness and how deeply it affected my emotions. Readers who love character-driven plots and spirited short stories should not hesitate to read this book!

Barbara Oliverio

The Topography of Hidden Stories is a collection of short stories sharing common themes that explore what life was like for young women in late 20th and early 21st century America. Narratives explore those women’s experiences growing up in large Catholic families, the fallout from that upbringing, all punctuated with the music of Sinatra echoing as a poignant soundtrack. Julia MacDonnell peoples this collection with a diverse population, but each woman has an important story to tell that resonates on a universal level. Her characters, while reflective, never fall into the trap of being mawkish and brooding, but rather express themselves with clear-eyed practicality blended with an acerbic wit. A supporting cast of sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, and aunts are all fleshed out as evenly as the main character in each story.

Lyrical and pensive, this collection made me stop often to appreciate the author’s graceful ability to develop well-rounded characters with her elegant prose. It was easy to empathize with each protagonist and each touching snapshot, often sharing a common theme, was unique in its own narrative. Julia MacDonell just as effortlessly captures the voice of a teenager pondering a heartbreaking choice as she does that of a middle-aged matron coping with a life-threatening illness. In the titular story, the artistic metaphor is an apt one, and I easily visualized the masterpiece and its significance to the narrator. Each individual gem in The Topography of Hidden Stories shines on its own, but together they gleam even more brilliantly.

Tammy Ruggles

The Topography of Hidden Stories by Julia MacDonnell is an intimate collection of the author's female-focused short stories. These are a treasure to read, offering portraits of women that may remind you of some you know, or even of yourself. "Hidden Stories" is an apt title, because MacDonnell tells the stories of women whose voices may have been dimmed by tradition, culture, expectations, and habit. These are women and situations you can relate to, thanks to the author's deep sense of time, place, and human interactions. Her descriptions bring you into the story, and you unfold along with the characters and plots of the stories.

MacDonnell's gift for writing is evident in the symbolic, poetic language she uses. At times she hints at a point or a theme, and other times she spells it out clearly. Some of these slice-of-life stories will resonate with you in a personal way, while others you can understand in the universal. The writing is so vivid you can easily see them playing out in arthouse films. The messages in the stories are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but always there. Take the first story, for example. The details--sights, sounds, smells, descriptions--are so real you feel as though you're in the house and in the car with the characters. The threads of Irish Catholic themes are evident, as are the efforts of these women to shed the roles expected of them. They want individuality, personal power, and creativity. You'll get a taste of politics, culture, religion, and family in this collection. And a flavor of feminism--obvious in some stories more than others--but it represents the yearning for meaning, independence, and freedom.

I admire the author's ability to surprise you. You may think you know what's happening and why, but then something different takes place. MacDonnell includes historic and cultural milestones, like JFK, the Vietnam War, Princess Diana, etc., that ground the reader in a sense of authenticity. "Soy Paco" is one of my favorites in this volume. If you're looking for a literary journey full of meaning and character, The Topography of Hidden Stories by Julia MacDonnell is a must-have for your personal library.