Courtney Sender’s debut short story collection, In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me, is a unique exploration of desire and yearning for the right partner and a life of happiness. Most of the stories involve either the ghosts of past lovers or current lovers who are haunted by ghosts of the past. While many of the stories are lyrical, surreal, and romance-oriented, the most compelling stories in the collection are those that are narrative-driven and full of Jewish content.
The second short story, “Black Harness,” is about lovers Olivia and Gus who go on a tour of a concentration camp. Upon their arrival, they experience — seemingly unintentionally — the same organized separation of people into two groups: one right, one left. The blood of Olivia’s ancestors under the earth of this camp haunts her as she simultaneously realizes that she has begun menstruating.
In a later story, “To Do with the Body,” menstruation becomes the main topic when the narrator explores the fantastical “Museum of Period Clothes” — a museum showcasing bloody, period-stained clothing from various eras and countries — and is able to calculate the number of days in her life that she has spent menstruating. The characters in this story, Eva and Lily, become friendly in the museum and enjoy a coexistence reminiscent of the relationship between the biblical Eve and Lilith. This humorous exhibit soon becomes deadly, reminding readers of the concentration camp scene in “Black Harness.” Then, in another story titled “The Docent,” instead of being a docent at the Museum of Period Clothes, the narrator is a prisoner in a concentration camp and receives bread for discussing artwork and giving a tour of the camp. The links between stories are often bizarre and horrific at once.
Lilith is the narrator of the story “Lilith in the Hands of God,” where she expresses what “really” happened in the Garden of Eden between her and Adam and how Eve came to be created. Interestingly, Lilith has the most decisive voice in this collection. She clearly identifies moments in her life that led to specific effects and changes in the world, such as Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib and, ultimately, these two women becoming lovers.
Other characters and motifs recur across the collection. Narrators often search for lovers and regret not staying with different lovers from the past. In the title story, the narrator lists qualities of past lovers and describes what her life would have been like had she stayed in a relationship with specific individuals. And in “To Lose Everything I Ever Loved” (and elsewhere in the collection), a Holocaust-surviving Nana hovers around the speaker as a ghostly presence, encouraging her to live a good life. Other times, the narrator wills Nana to appear when she needs advice.
After feeling “beaten down” and “unloved” for too long, the narrator in “To Lose Everything I Ever Loved” confides, “I remember what my Nana Itta used to say, looking at old photographs of the dead in her living room: Your grandpa never brought me down, he always brought me up. I want to rise in love, too.” The narrators of these stories try to find happiness through love but change their minds frequently, disappointed as they continuously are.
Meditating on relationship struggles, love, lust, and longing, these fourteen brief stories will captivate the reader with their many surprising twists and hauntings.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.