Like A Complete Unknown

by Anara Guard

Available for pre-order

In 1969, a girl’s life is not her own. Katya Warshawsky’s parents demand she drop out of high school and join a cleaning crew. Instead, she runs away, hoping to join hippies, anti-war protestors, and aspiring artists like herself. But Chicago’s counterculture isn’t as welcoming as she dreamed. Widowed doctor Robert Lewis worries how much longer to keep his medical practice open: he can offer little help to his most desperate patients. When Katya—starry-eyed, barefoot, and in trouble—appears in his office, a rash impulse propels him into the turbulent streets of Chicago. While Katya hunts for freedom and Dr. Lewis searches for her, they encounter chaos and beauty as they both risk a new unknown life.




Chapter Three

One is the loneliest number

Katya thought she would recognize last night’s office building when she saw it again, but there were too many to choose among: steel, marble, and granite; old and new; brown, silver, black. The bus crawled up one crowded street and down another while she sat, uncertain and confused, until the driver called out, “Randolph Street. Chi-caw-go Public Liberry!” Surely, the library would have maps of downtown, some aid to help her locate the street she sought. She lugged her heavy suitcase down the aisle.


The massive stone building occupied an entire city block. While other people entered without hesitation, Katya lingered at the bottom of the stone steps, watching the door open and close until a young mother approached the entrance, each outstretched hand clutching the arm of a small, tugging child. Picking up her suitcase, Katya followed the woman inside and then collapsed onto the nearest bench, feeling her heart lift out of her body. Just last Sunday, St. Stanislaus’ Church had seemed ornate but, compared to this palace of Aladdin’s riches, it was shabby and plain. Huge bronze chandeliers illuminated green and gold mosaics that rose up the walls, along the broad marble stairways, and across a vast domed ceiling. Abalone gleamed in elaborate curlicues twining into endless garlands and wreaths. Embedded in the soaring ceiling were letters formed by mosaic tiles and she tilted her head back to squint at the unfamiliar words. Latin, for sure, or was that Greek? Astonishingly, no one else paused to look up. They stood in line at a long wooden desk, waiting for the disinterested librarians to stamp their books.

Forgetting the maps and eager to find a spot to sketch, Katya ventured up the broad staircase, trailing her fingertips along its cool marble balustrade. At the top of the stairs, she wandered into the Children’s Room where shelves of books lined the walls, stretching the length of one chamber and into the next. Little children squatted around a librarian who sat on a low chair in a patch of sunshine, reading aloud from a picture book. A handful of mothers had pulled their chairs together in one corner where they whispered among themselves.

Her feet made no sound as she crossed the green carpet. At the far end of the room old favorites welcomed her from the shelves, their titles on the worn spines as familiar as friends: Black Beauty, Little Women, Heidi. National Velvet lay open on a nearby table, waiting for her to arrive, and she sank into an armchair to read. The sun warmed her head; the librarian’s sweet voice was rhythmic and soothing, and, far away, a palomino horse whinnied. It nuzzled her shoulder with its soft nose and shook her.

“We don’t allow sleeping here,” the horse said. An unfamiliar face peered at her: dark eyebrows pinched above tortoiseshell glasses. The librarian pointed to her suitcase, whispering, “You might miss your train.”

“Oh. Yeah, my train.” Katya retreated down a corridor and found the Ladies Room. Locked in a stall, she counted her money. Between her own small savings and what she’d taken from her mother’s housekeeping fund (“borrowed,” she reminded herself, “I’m going to pay her back someday,”) she had sixty-four dollars. It seemed like a lot, and she slipped most of the bills into her knee sock, keeping only a few dollars in her pockets.

In the mirror, she looked changed somehow, her eyes bigger. As always, the scar gleamed white, a persistent reminder of the painful day when she’d tried to ride Piotr’s three-speed bike. He rode no-handed, gracefully shifting his weight as he pedaled. It looked so easy: surely, she would be able to glide as he did, straight as an arrow. But despite his shouts of encouragement, she wavered and wobbled down the block until the bicycle veered wildly into a brick wall and she’d limped home with scraped knees and a gash in her chin. Ma (who believed doctors were unnecessary extravagances) treated the wound with iodine, band-aids, and two Saint Joseph’s orange-flavored baby aspirin while she forbade her daughter to ever mount a bicycle again. Only tomboys rode bikes and who’d want to marry a tomboy?

Pushing her limp hair away from her forehead, Katya wished she had thought to pack barrettes. But she could buy them, along with some lunch, for her stomach seemed to have forgotten those morning pastries. And then, she would begin the hunt for her new friends.

Outside, blinding light refracted off the sharp edges of stone buildings. Taxis blared their horns as they pulled up to the curb in a long yellow row and the sidewalk was a river of people rushing past, jostling her with their elbows, bumping against her clumsy suitcase. Squinting from the top of the library steps, she tried to peer over the crowds in search of a lunch counter or drugstore.

“Girl, you in some kinda trouble.”

Reviews:Meredith Hall wrote:

"A beautifully written debut novel with rich, complex characters bound by their tumultuous personal histories and the volatile political landscape of the late 1960's. Against the grit and beauty of counterculture Chicago, we are allowed to love these flawed, isolated people, and to feel joy as they create renewed lives.”

on San Francisco Book Review:

“In this stunning debut novel, Anara Guard weaves together the fragments of a runaway girl’s life against the backdrop of 1970s Chicago. Her voice is lyrical and self-aware, allowing the reader to fully immerse their self in Katya’s angst and yearnings with a gentle grace that can only come from sympathetic knowing…her deep understanding of story and character show mastery of the bildungsroman and novel writing…lulling the reader into her character’s painful, beautiful world.”

Diane Donovan on Midwest Book Review wrote:

Most novels about teens speak of the parents' insistence that their child at least graduate high school, but Katya Warshawsky's parents are different. They insist she drop out of school to begin her working life. And Katya, an aspiring artist, wants more from her life than working on a cleaning crew.

And so she runs away. It's the late 1960s: an era of flight, freedom, hippie dreams and hopes, and the promise of a new world which beckons Katya with change - albeit in a different manner than her parents had envisioned for her future. And Chicago isn't the bastion of counterculture opportunities Katya had hoped for.

When she gets into trouble and needs medical help, she involves widowed doctor Robert Lewis in her plight. He already helps those less fortunate; but when Katya appears and then vanishes, he's drawn to find her. This pulls him away from his office and from traditional medical practice and into a world he's only touched lightly.

As Katya confuses freedom and opportunity for love, her feelings and emotions are solidly represented: "This was what she had longed for; it was the true beginning of her new, free life."

Trusting Katya doesn't know anything about drugs, and little about the counterculture life she's poised to enter. Her naivety and trust are part of what makes her so vulnerable to the ideals, paranoia, and follies of those around her.

Doc, on the other hand, is savvy, straight-laced, and wise.

Anara Guard does a fine job of juxtaposing these two seemingly disparate individuals, showing how their lives come together by chance, the lessons each learns from the rising tides that buffet their world and expectations, and the plight of street teens who are homeless and vulnerable.

As Katya's predicament brings her full circle to contemplate returning home and Doc's encounters lead him further from his practice, readers receive an involving window into the hearts and minds of those who face restrictions on their trajectories in life and chafe against them.

This story of change, transformation, and growth captures not only the social and political milieu of the 1960s, but its pitfalls and opportunities. Readers who want a sense of what these times were like and the struggles experienced by those both within and outside of the system will find Like A Complete Unknown a vivid, thought-provoking story that captures this world from two different experiences.

Book Group Reading Guide available for download.

About the Author

Anara studied writing at the Urban Gateways Young Writers Workshop of Chicago with Kathleen Agena, the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts with Norman Corwin, Columbia College Story Workshop, St. Joseph’s College with Stu Dybek, Bread Loaf Writers Conference with Robert Cohen and Alix Ohlin, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. In 2010, Back Pages Publishing issued her first collection of short stories, The Sound of One Body. Her second story collection, Remedies for Hunger (2014) was named one of the Best Books of 2015 by Chicago Book Review.

She is also a poet and memoirist. Her poems, improbably enough, have won both a John Crowe Ransom Poetry Prize and a Jack Kerouac Poetry Prize. Her work has recently appeared in The Ear, Gold Man Review, Voices 2020, Under the Gum Tree and elsewhere.  She and her sister, Gay Guard-Chamberlin, perform their poetry together as Sibling Revelry. Watch a video of Sibling Revelry here.

Follow Anara on Instagram, Facebook, or her website.

Quotes from various Sibling Revelry audiences:

Loved your program! The introductions/backgrounds/history for the poems were perfect as well as breaking up the poetry by themes. The interplay between you also worked really well. – Joanne K.

Your reading was a delight!  So much fun to see the similarities and difference between the two of you and your work. You read (and write, of course) so expressively. —Michelle K.

It was such a delight for me.  It was such a treat to hear their work and see how they play off one another with their different personalities and styles of writing.  It was also fun to hear them read each other’s poems.—Ruth K.

I was very grateful for the brief respite your event provided. I ordered your book, so I am anxious for it to arrive. I think my favorite poem may have been the one about “What is Greater than 45” probably because of our current situation. I also loved the poem about her breasts; something I can relate to these days!—Shelli S.

I really loved hearing both of you together and the way your poetry intersects and yet is so different. I think your "concept" in these readings is just so lovely for this strange time. I can imagine writing a dissertation on both of your work and its--maybe "interplay" is the right word? I was definitely seeing your performance art side in the reading. —Abby B.

So lovely to see the two of you together with all your devotees! It was a delightful hour, so thank you. The poems really do come to life and I think you should think about reading each other’s poems more. It adds a certain freedom to the reading, I think. Nina G.

That was a lot of fun. The poem about the mason jar actually got me alittle misty ("the grandmother's home we long to return to") so I covered my cam for a second to blink back the tears. The ending about the lip meeting our lips is wonderful, too. And I loved the poem about the crow and its knick-knack shelf.—Erika M.


Other Books By Anara Guard