Some Instagram user once said “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” They were an idiot – the lights always go out for good eventually – but they always get lots of hearts on their statement, while reality gets no likes at all. A lot of us aren’t privileged enough to buy into fancy ideas of “some day.” We still find hope though, something to hold onto.
That appears to be a running theme in the group of intertwined short stories and vignettes that are Yong Takahashi’s The Escape to Candyland. All of these stories tie in to Atlanta, Georgia in one way or another, with interspersed references and reoccurring background characters. I personally feel this collection is an underrated and underappreciated gem that deserves more readers.
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As a collection of short stories, there isn’t a coherent or cohesive whole to the book. There is, however, a bit of a mythos and some come-to-realize as how some individuals act or the situations they find themselves in are tied together.
A lot of these stories pull around several events that are viewed in different lights throughout the book. A business owner’s husband steals the money from the susu/tanda (Referred to as “The Lottery Club” by characters) and loses it gambling. A well connected pastor becomes more and more depraved the more he becomes connected. A strip club owner is in many ways “The Devil You Know” and several characters have to come to terms with the fact that this saying still is referring to a devil. A book store plays a solid backdrop even if many of the characters participating there are anything but holding their lives together.
This isn’t a story about these events themselves, however. This is a collection of short stories that referencing these events, sometimes in passing and sometimes as they directly affect the character the short is focused on. Each individual has their own lives, their own struggles, their own backdrops. In “American Dreams,” for example, Benny struggles to move forward, hoping for the day he can be with his long-time girlfriend and child… even as he is in an arranged marriage solely for citizenship and to throw off ICE. “Donor 2000-799” is the story of a man who can’t give his wife a child, and is haunted when he discovers the fact the sperm he donated as a younger adult has created several children. “Job Search” is at first glance a story of a woman in her 50’s looking for work again, only to find a second chance with a man she’d wronged under previous employment. “Reunion” tells the story of a former ugly duckling and her unlikely friendship with a well known jock, and how the two of them bonded together over their dark family secrets even as they found it difficult to be there for each other any further than in spirit.
Some of these stories are really strong and leave a lasting impression. Personally, of the bunch, I felt “The Winner,” a story that deals with a gambling addict with a toddler she neglects because the next win in just another spin away, was the most shocking. Others I wished had been more fleshed out. “Letting Go” was simply too short for what it was, and felt like it could have done so much more to show one of the more prominent characters but as it stood was kind of sharp yet led to no real deep cut. “Restitution” needs to be read a second time, after the book proper has been consumed, in order to truly appreciate it – but there’s certain elements of it that just didn’t quite work for me and were too “come-to-realize” for my tastes.
This collection is hard to pin down, but easy to appreciate. The diversity of characters and their hardships works well, often as stand-alone stories but definitively in painting a larger picture. Many have to struggle to get what little they can. Others don’t appreciate just how much they do. Yong Takahashi approaches this in a way that’s less beautiful than it is persevering, like an unnameable perfume that remind the reader of something just out of reach. This would be an easy book to recommend to individuals looking for interconnected stories with multiple points of views.
The Escape to Candyland is written by Yong Takahashi and is listed as 143 pages. It can be purchase in Paperback, $2.99 for the e-book, or free as part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription.