We Have Never Lived On Earth: Stories by Kasia Van Schaik

From the opening line to the last of Kasia Van Schaik’s exceptional We Have Never Lived On Earth, I felt pulled into the author’s world (her character Charlotte’s world), and into her thoughts and psyche. I read her collection of stories front to back in one sitting like someone desperately hungry for the meaty experience her writing is – and then I read the whole thing again. It’s that good, though her stories can be unsettling, too. They can make you lose your own footing; like you’re on “elevator sand”:

The current was strong. He felt it sucking the sand from under his feet. Elevator sand, he’d called this sensation as a child, the way it felt like you were speeding forward when you were actually standing in the same place.” – 38

            “What has broken you?” a lover asks in a story that takes Charlotte to Crete on research but ends in an affair (and a curse!). We Have Never Lived On Earth could be read as a direct response to that question. Van Schaik tells her story, the story of her character Charlotte (and the line between the two seems blurry) through memory-based episodes garnered from different times in her life. It’s almost like she is pointing to remembered scars as she writes, explaining as she goes what has broken her – and why. Each story is a scar.

            The stories are laid out in a somewhat linear fashion (from young child to adult, though she bounces around a bit), and the reader follows Charlotte through formative experiences in her unnamed B.C. mining town (“We were the descendants of gold miners and hookers.” 50) and then to Montreal as soon as she finishes high school. From there we follow her to Crete, then to Germany (falls in love, has her heart ripped out, writes a Kafkaesque story of disappearing furniture and a boyfriend who doesn’t seem to notice), and then to Amsterdam where her friend delivers one of the gut punch lines of the book: “You surround yourself with artists, Noel observes, but you’re too afraid to become one.” (ouch!) Finally, she returns home to regroup, not because she wants to, but because she’s hit a breaking point. 

            It isn’t clear how much of Charlotte is the author herself, telling her own stories (you may wonder if the book is what she did to release herself from the past), but it doesn’t matter how close to the truth they are. What matters is her singular phrasing and dialogue (“Sometimes, separation is a loving solution.”42), her talent for vividly describing people and place and relationships in so few words you wonder how she’s done it (“I am now linked to her by an invisible cord running from my ankle to hers” 108), and her uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re right in it with her. Elevator sand.

            But what makes We Have Never Lived On Earth stand out most, is how the collection of linked though disconnected stories feels as rewarding as a novel. The stories are complete on their own, but read together they tell a story of a life – the pieces of a life that reveal her the most (“Find the pieces of the world that serve as evidence for your life, she’d instruct us. Defend them!” -4).

See also  The Last Unsuitable Man by Louise Carson

            Kasia Van Schaik is an extraordinary writer. She paints story worlds from memory akin to how Isak Dinesen recreated her farm in Africa. She drills into difficult topics like parental neglect, sexual assault, heartbreak, poverty, aloneness and mental illness without shame, and with a tragic beauty that reminds of Elizabeth Smart or Heather O’Neill. And she describes Charlotte’s most vulnerable insecurities – her disappointments, her secrets, the moments that break her heart – in so intimate a way you feel like your own heart is breaking.

During my last visit to Berlin I collected the things that Lukas had been safekeeping for me. Letters, clothes, a few books. My plan was to bring them back to Canada with me, but I would end up leaving them in a neat pile at a random train station in Berlin. 

That evening, after leaving his place, I got on the wrong train. When I discovered my mistake, I got off in a forested area in the west part of the city and sat down on a bench. The eastbound platform was empty. My vision was blurring. I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. I tried to collect myself. I took several books out of theIKEA bag, but I couldn’t read the words written in them. Their pages had turned into rivers.” – 96

            By the end of the book Charlotte has grown up, and she’s grown a hard shell. The gradual decline in the outlook of the narrator is like experiencing a loss of innocence in real time. Her perception of detail and beauty changes, her hope and trust in people diminishes, her openness and playfulness becomes cynicism. By the end of the book Charlotte has morphed from a character with wide eyes, hope, and a sense of humour, to a person heavily-weighted and changed by trauma, deep disappointment, and neglect. Her cynicism may also be understood as a natural response to the state of the world in 2022. 

            “It wasn’t loneliness that brought us together, but rather familiarity, and the fact that neither of us had a Five Year Plan. 
            This is love in the digital age, Hugh once told me. This is love in the age of microplastics. Everyone’s just trying to get their footing, he said. We recognize each other, and that’s enough.”
 – 151

            Unlike her meandering anti-hero Charlotte, Kasia Van Schaik is not afraid to be an artist. With We Have Never Lived On Earth, she’s come out swinging.

About the Author

Kasia Van Schaik is a South African-Canadian writer living in Montreal/Tiohtià:ke.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ The University of Alberta Press (Oct. 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 184 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1772126284
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1772126280

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