‘The Night Shift’ by Natalka Burian: Vibrant Vulnerability

Megan Luebberman

In author Natalka Burian’s new novel, the exciting and thought-provoking The Night Shift (325 pages; Park Row Books), otherworldly openings called “Shortcuts” allow individuals to teleport through time and space from one location to another. Only certain characters are in-the-know, while others, like Jean Smith, have no idea that it’s possible at all. Jean, a woman struggling just to pay her rent in New York City, has to pick up jobs at a bar and at a bakery.  She soon feels there aren’t enough hours in the day until a newfound acquaintances introduces her to New York’s Shortcuts.

Jean is someone who prefers to remain unseen and unheard. She avoids close relationships and runs from any kind of emotional openness. This is the result of past trauma with her parents, trauma that still haunts her. At any time in her day, painful memories can spring to mind:

“Jean grabbed a hat and went out, locking the door carefully. In a home invasion, locks don’t really do shit, Jeanie, but you have to use them. She stood frozen in the hallway and forced herself to breathe. Her father’s voice rang out in her mind with icy clarity. She was stunned that even after a decade, these ghosts of her past would flare to life so easily. Jean waited in the hallway, grateful to be alone, until her body remembered where it was– that it was safe.”

Burian impressively portrays both Jean’s reclusive nature and sensitive psyche. Jean trembles at conversations nearing her personal life and tries to remain surface level with everyone. In fact, she quit her last job to avoid personal ties. This pessimistic attitude and  general suspicion makes friendships difficult for her. So when her co-worker Iggy introduces Jean to the Shortcuts, she ironically finds herself in a whirlwind of meet-and-greets, cautiously picking up friends as she goes. The Shortcuts fascinate her, as they do the other New Yorkers she explores them with, boggling the mind at how they work. Some Shortcuts are unpleasant, others are stuffy—all of them eventually leave Jean mentally and physically drained. One particularly bad one “slurped them up like a giant, greedy mouth. It was uncomfortable, compressive and also inexpressibly gooey, like being sucked back into the birth canal.” Yet, Jean and her compatriots remain entranced by their mysterious power and continue to use them.

Originally a way to get to her second job on time, the Shortcuts become a deeper matter and wrap her into an adventure of their own. When Iggy goes missing in a Shortcut, Jean and their mutual friend Claire search for him. As they venture through every Shortcut in the city, Jean learns more and more about the history of the phenomenon; why they exist, how they affect the human brain, and what ominous things may be possible by using the science behind them.

The Night Shift offers considerable sci-fi fun and keen, emotional depth. Each short chapter holds another piece of the puzzle behind Jean’s mind and the mechanics of the Shortcuts. What begins as simply a means to an end drags Jean and her newfound friends into drastic and dangerous situations. The more she unravels about herself, the more she discovers about the Shortcuts, all of it surreptitiously connecting. Burian shows how human connection and belief in oneself are important—with or without the ability to zap through time and space.

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