Manipulated Lives by H. A. Leuschel is a collection of five short stories, each very different but linked by the theme of manipulation. Every one of the stories is unusual, intriguing and thought provoking in their own way.
Leuschel captured my attention from the onset with the dramatic and mysterious opening of the first story, The Narcissist. What is immediately apparent is that Leuschel is a skilled writer who delicately constructs her stories so that like onions they unfurl for the reader layer by layer.
Leuschel cleverly alternates her stories between first and third person narratives and both styles have their advantages. For example, The Narcissist is told from the perspective of first person which lends an air of mystery and allows Leuschel to demonstrate how the narcissist in question is blind to his own behaviour and therefore unable to make amends. In contrast, Runaway Girl is told from multiple viewpoints in third person which undermines the idea of a true version of events and leads us to question who is manipulating who.
The beauty of Leuschel’s collection of stories is how they highlight the way we, as humans, often blind ourselves to the truth which can make us both manipulators and victims. The stories are all character driven by realistic and flawed characters and this allows us to relate to the behaviour depicted no matter how extreme it may become.
The frightening reality is that, given the right set of circumstances we could all find ourselves falling victim to a manipulator. A lack of confidence or feelings of neediness means that the slightest show of kindness or flattery could have a profound effect on our emotional compass. The strength of Leuschel’s stories for me lies with the fact that her victims aren’t necessarily likeable and being a victim doesn’t preclude being a manipulator as well.
Leuschel presents a convincing argument that the power of the manipulator is a combination of psychological and physical coercion. Some of the manipulators are presented as dangerous psychopaths whilst others are propelled by a sense of their own importance and entitlement. Leuschel also explores the idea of whether manipulators are simply born that way or created.
The most sinister of the stories for me is My Perfect Child as it is one that resonates with our child-centric society. By creating a supreme sense of self worth in her son and never challenging his demands or destructive behaviour the mother creates a monster. She then colludes with her son by justifying his dysfunction to everyone around her. I think most of us probably know parents with similar attitudes to child rearing even if the outcome isn’t as extreme.
Manipulated Lives raised many questions for me but perhaps the most difficult one is whether there is any such thing as harmless manipulation. We all manipulate to some extent in order to get our own way, whether it’s like the lonely octogenarian Tess in Tess and Tattoos, who likes to pretend she’s dead to get her carers to spend a few more minutes with her or emotionally punishing people for not being who we want them to be. However, having read these stories and being shown the ugly side of manipulation, I for one will be more mindful in the future.
I really enjoyed these five stories and reading them reminded me of how I often overlook the form of short stories in favour of novels. Fortunately though Leuschel’s skills in creating distinct storylines and characters have made me realise what I’m missing out on. Especially during the busy Christmas period, when free time is often limited, I can’t recommend these stories highly enough. Plus they are the perfect antidote to all that festive sweetness.