I read something new because I liked a previous book enough to get another by the same author, or because I want something fun and quick enough to shut my brain off for a few hours and the cover (or blurb) suggest to me that this book will be worth the risk, or because it was suggested to me as a “must read” by someone I trust (though there are very few of those). Fowler’s collection of short stories was one that was recommended to me, and I am now in the position of both appreciating the suggestion and passing it along to you.
I’d read at least one of her stories online, the one about the woman whose daughter is dating the vampire, which is called “Younger Women” and can be read online for free. That story was wonderful. That story isn’t in this book, having been written after, but you can see the bones of it in what Fowler has done before. The subtlety of a story told without any unnecessary bits shoved in to make it this genre or that. The hint of sadness that is visible but presented as if the bearer isn’t sure yet whether they have reason enough to be sad, and are leaving up to you to decide for them.
There are times that she takes inspiration from other stories, mostly fairy tales, but instead of retelling them she shows you the most important moments of someone who was only peripherally affected by the story you might have heard before. “Halfway People” does this, with its swan brother and the woman who knew him for a short time; “The Dark” does it too, with plague and rats and the piper that always hangs around where those things intersect.
Some of the tales she retells aren’t yet fantastical enough to interest Grimm but are, at least in the US, just as well known. Fowler gives John Wilkes Booth a literary half-life with both “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only”, the second being (I think) her most “genre” story of the bunch, when you figure out the twist I don’t plan to spoil for you.
According to Wikipedia there is some controversy over whether Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” deserved the Nebula award it won, on the grounds that it was neither fantasy nor science fiction and therefore didn’t meet the genre requirements for the award. I can’t say whether it should have won under that criteria, because it didn’t feel like either of those things to me, but I have been thinking lately that both sf and fantasy are settings, not genres, and real genres are things like “adventure” and “romance” and “thriller” and “alternate history political intrigue”. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the setting is because the story is moving and beautiful and questioning its own sadness, as Fowler’s stories tend to do.
And if it must be genre, in this instance, we can call it alternate history (because what is told is a fiction that never happened exactly that way in real life) or feminist pulp adventure tale (because it is most definitely that) or literary fantasy, because what happens in the story is not magical but is fantastical. Good enough for me.
I liked every story in the book. I thought “The Pelican Bar” was cruel in that it revealed something heartless and yet unsurprising – the way people can abandon the children they don’t understand. It was brilliant in that it didn’t falter in the telling. No words out of place or misused, no sentiment awkwardly stuffed in without need. But then I think all of her stories are the same way, which is why I adore Fowler’s writing, and this book, and these stories.
“Always” made sense, again. We must all have those moments where we slow down, quiet our internal selves, and feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. How else can a story about living forever seem so familiar? “The Marianas Islands” had the same sense of comfortable relation, as if the narrator is a distant cousin telling family tales we’ve heard before but weren’t there to experience first hand.
My favorite, in that it was heartbreaking and immediately grabbed me and made me cry, was the final piece in the book, “King Rat”. It reads as if it’s non-fiction, and I know that I could look it up (the Internet is full of facts like these) but I wouldn’t want to know if it wasn’t.
Reading the book took most of a day because, like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link’s work, Fowler’s stories are too much to read without pausing in between like a marathoner grabbing water every few miles. He’d never make it to the end without refreshing himself and neither should you barrel through a collection like this without stopping to let your brain breathe. At 200 pages, it’s hardly long, but certainly long enough.
Go, read. I’d hate for you to have missed out on knowing what it feels like to have read it.
* Note: I bought my copy from Small Beer Press, and you should too.