Synopsis: Hairway to Heaven is a collection of short stories revolving around life on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. The neighborhood, which mostly houses poor African-Americans and their businesses, is undergoing gentrification. While some seek to revitalize the area, others are only interested in their own personal gain. However, at the heart of the neighborhood (and each of the stories) are individuals who are more or less just like everyone else: they simply want to make their world a little better.
It can be more difficult to review a story collection than a novel. There are new characters introduced every few pages, and just when you think you’re getting the hang of who this character really is and their story, it’s over. Not in the sense that they all die in the end (they don’t), but the reader is only given a few bites of each character’s story, and must put them together in their own mind in order to create a full meal.
Each of the stories is well written and centers around a fictional resident of a poor side of Portland, Oregon. Surprisingly, by the end of each story, I usually felt like I understood the character. These stories were not just thrown together, but rather intentionally crafted to build upon one another and create a bigger picture of the area. Each character’s story adds to the larger story Somlo is telling: that of the neighborhood as a whole. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in how similar some of the characters sounded. There is very little distinction from one character to the next; obviously the fact that the stories were all written by the same author makes some similarities expected, but I still expect each character to have their own unique voice and personality.
I love what Somlo is doing in this book, and how she goes about it. That said, I did not enjoy each of the stories individually. However, I am not convinced that this actually takes away from what Somlo is intending to say. Not all of life is pretty, clean, or nice. Similarly, many of the stories deal with situations that are also none of the above. This is a raw look at the human condition and how it plays out in a single town as an example. It is clear and well-displayed, if not exactly pleasant. Somlo does not exclusively show the negative side of humanity though; there is hope, striving, growth, education, and discovery alongside betrayal, loss, fear, and pain. There are people who continue to make mistakes, and people who learn from their mistakes.
If you are interested in lifelike short stories which examine humanity from an honest standpoint, then Hairway to Heaven is definitely worth your time. The writing style is easy to read, but some of the topics are not. In telling the story of a neighborhood through the lives of individuals, Somlo is also telling the story of identity: the identity the neighborhood used to have, the one it has grown into, and that of the individuals who are seeking to either maintain or change the neighborhood today. Change is rarely easy, and when it comes with unclear or questionable motives, it can make life even more difficult for the most vulnerable.
When reading Hairway to Heaven Stories, I encourage you to try to do so with a wide-angle focus. Instead of focusing on each character’s situation and the brief story they tell, listen to what each of the stories together has to say about the neighborhood. Then, listen to the stories of people in your own neighborhood. There is always something to be learned from listening to those around us. By doing so, we just might understand ourselves and our environment a little bit better.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.