The Short Version: Stories of deceptions, mysteries, losses – and the women who endure them. A gang of teenage bank robbers, a mother/daughter magician team, twins who aren’t very much alike at all, and a newlywed who can’t quite figure out how she ended up in her marriage are just some of the sourly real leads in van den Berg’s new collection.
The Review: The short story feels, anymore, like a bit of a retreat for so many young authors. They write in that form because it feels less daunting than a novel or because their imaginations don’t quite work in the longer form. Whatever it might be, there’s a glut of short stories out there these days – and, astonishingly, so many of them seem to be good. Oh, sure, plenty of collections are a bit long in the tooth at times and sometimes there’s a dud here or there within a particular collection but you sort of expect that with short story collections these days. That’s just the price of doing business.
So how lovely to find a new (to me) writer in the short story form, presenting a collection that doesn’t feel overlong, doesn’t have a dud in the middle of the pack, and does something that I’d consider ‘unique’ with the stories to boot. I use that term – ‘unique’ – because I truly cannot think of another story collection (or of other stories, in general) like these. There are stories that feature similar types of characters, even similar plots and experiences – but I cannot think of a time that I’ve read stories that feel so distinctly like these do.
These stories are stories about women, yes – but they don’t feel like women’s stories. That’s always the fear (boys, am I right?) when you crack open a book that has a back cover pitch like “[this book] explores the lives of women mired in deception and secrecy.” I don’t mind chick lit sometimes and I don’t begrudge anyone reading whatever floats their boat – but that’s the sort of phrase that, in the wrong moment, could turn me off from a book. But if you read even just a few sentences of the first story in this collection, I can guarantee that you will find yourself entranced, regardless of what your gender-related disposition might be.
The first story is… well, I almost just wrote that it’s the best, but that’d be a lie. I’m not sure I can pick just one story as “the best” out of the collection. There are a few that I can rule out – but that still leaves me with several that could easily vie for top marks. The opening story sets up the conceit, if you will, of the collection at large: a woman in a strange circumstance, something just not-quite-right in her world… and there is a placidity, a sort of predestination about the way these characters move that makes you feel like that’s maybe just how the world is supposed to be. One character fills her mouth with sand until she can’t bear it any longer while another flies to Antarctica (in a Where’d You Go, Bernadette sort of moment) to discover what happened when her brother died – and a third agrees to get a makeover and take the place of her twin sister for a while. These moments, these bigger-than-life things feel so ordinary in a heartbreaking way: they are not extraordinary to the characters in the moment because those characters are simply living the moments – and how often do we really recognize how extraordinary something might be at the very moment that it’s happening? In the midst of a bank robbery gone wrong, you are still just living in the moment and not recognizing what kind of moment it is (other than, perhaps, very very bad) – and van den Berg captures that essence of time so acutely, it’s scary.
It can also be funny – but the sort of laughter that might come at a funeral reception: a little too loud, about something that isn’t necessarily laugh-out-loud funny but rather warmly humorous and the whole thing just feels a bit like a little release valve. The private eye sisters are like a nightmarish version of the Spellman girls, the mother/daughter magician duo a riff on any number of tales once told – but these particular stories feel as individual as the lives they’re meant to evoke. van den Berg does such a spectacular job at casting a spell over the reader, in almost the blink of an eye, that you don’t realize it has happened until you’ve finished the story and (in what is always, without fail, the sign of a truly exceptional short story collection for me) you have to take a pause to let the story dissipate, fully letting it out of your system before the next one begins.
Rating: 5 out of 5. An original and striking collection, bordering – but never straying into – the world of the fantastic. Instead, these are fantastic lives lived in ordinary ways – or, perhaps, vice versa. van den Berg’s writing is hypnotic and beautiful and each story feels like a little trinket, meant to be examined and consumed entirely before considering the next. I was wildly impressed.
(Note: there’ll be a recap of Ms. van den Berg’s FSG Originals Series appearance coming soon aussi!)