BOOK REVIEW: FIVE TUESDAYS IN WINTER by LILY KING


Five Tuesdays in Winter

A lot of the time when I read slice-of-life short stories, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. It’s not that I dislike these stories, exactly, but rather that they often end up feeling ungrounded, “slices” that don’t evoke any underlying sense of the totality that they’ve presumably been “sliced” from. That is, the characters and their stories feel like props on a stage, a tableau contrived for the sake of the short story but that falls apart as soon as that story is over.

I bring this up because you will find none of that in Lily King’s excellent collection. King’s stories are slice-of-life, yes, but far from feeling flimsy or ungrounded, they are substantial and, more remarkably, moving. The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter find their characters–children, teenagers, young adults, mothers, fathers–in singular moments in their lives, times during which their ways of thinking–and living–have been called into question, brought into the light, disrupted, shifted. All these moments hinge on the interpersonal, on a growing relationship or a severed one, or else on a relationship that a character must now renegotiate on different terms: a mother trying to connect with her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death, a boy learning to see his life differently in the absence of his parents, a man reuniting with the college roommate he used to be infatuated with. To say that these moments are singular, though, is not to say that they entail some kind of monumental upheaval; they are small moments, but just because they are small does not mean that they register as any less important to the characters who experience them.

More to the point, what I love about King’s stories is that they feel meaningful without being dramatic; they convey a real sense of impact without resorting to overblown scenes or language. The writing is measured and graceful, the stories pared down in a way that feels compelling rather than plain: you want to know more, but you are only given enough to know that you want more. Nowhere is this more evident than in this collection’s characters: the characters in Five Tuesdays in Winter feel fleshed out not because we’re given some perfunctory background on them in each story, but rather because we are allowed illuminating little glimpses into the lives they lead.

(My favourite story was by far “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” but I also especially loved “When in the Dordogne,” “North Sea,” “Creature,” and “South.”)

The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter are by turns affirming and unsettling, hopeful and melancholy, but regardless of tone I thought this was just an all around lovely collection.

Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!


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BOOK REVIEW: OUR WIVES UNDER THE SEA by JULIA ARMFIELD


Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

I really thought I would love this book; it simply didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t. Julia Armfield’s debut, Salt Slow, is one of my favourite short story collections ever; the inimitable SARAH WATERS blurbed this novel; every author who I’ve seen talk about this novel online has given it nothing less than a stellar review–all signs pointed to my loving this. And yet, quite frankly, I just didn’t.

Our Wives Under the Sea was, for me, the kind of novel that you forget about the second you finish it–honestly, the kind of novel you forget about as you’re reading it. The biggest issue with this book is that its story doesn’t have any meat, nothing to really sink your teeth into. You’re given descriptions and vague impressions and feelings and moments and snippets of memory, but none of this ever feels like it’s attached to anything solid, to any kind of substantial foundation. The result is that the novel feels like a collection of disparate parts rather than a cohesive whole, a bunch of jumbled elements that never really coalesce into anything that feels like a proper narrative. (Luce’s review sums up my feelings perfectly.)

More than making the story forgettable, this lack of substance also makes Our Wives Under the Sea so hard to get through. This is a very short novel, and yet it felt like such a drag to read. There’s no sense of momentum, here, nothing to make you want to keep reading. The novel is split into two timelines, and rather than becoming more complex or interesting as you go on, they just end up stagnating. Bad things happen, and then bad things keep happening, and then the characters keep thinking about how bad things are, and none of this feels particularly compelling because it’s all so samey.

I know a novel is a favourite of mine when I can look back on reading it and distinctly remember all of its best moments: the moments that moved me, the moments that surprised me, the moments that made me think. Our Wives Under the Sea is not a novel you can distinctly remember anything about because nothing in this novel ever feels distinct in any way. It all goes by in a blur, and then you’re just left with a sense of nothingness that doesn’t go anywhere.

Thanks so much to Picador for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Netgalley!




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BOOK REVIEW: HOMESICKNESS by COLIN BARRETT


Grove Atlantic

Based on the short story collections that I’ve read, what I’ve to come to expect from a typical short story is a discrete narrative, a kind of novel in miniature. That is to say, most of the short stories I’ve encountered have been more or less like polished gems, very much self-contained in their little short-story packages. Where such stories are polished gems, though, Barrett’s are like rocks chipped out of some surface, rough and jagged and imperfect in the way that all organic things are. They’re stories that feel ongoing rather than discrete, not always going where you expect them to, and not always giving you what you want, either. In Barrett’s hands, though, that’s not at all a drawback.

Barrett’s stories are not really interested in giving you a nice, clean narrative with a delineated beginning, middle, and end, but rather in dropping you into the lives of their characters and seeing what happens. In “The Ways,” three siblings who have recently lost both their parents to cancer go about their lives; in “Anhedonia, Here I Come,” a struggling poet mired in his work attempts to deal with his various frustrations over it; in “The Alps,” the patrons of a club encounter a young man who walks in with a sword. They’re stories that, for the most part, don’t have any flashy or grandiose moments–in fact a lot of them actively lean towards the mundane–but in every one of them there is a tautness, a dramatic tension that holds the story upright and keeps you wanting to keep reading.

Unlike the typical short story I’m used to reading, Barrett’s don’t all end with a moment that clinches the point of the story, or come with some kind of critical passage that’s the key to unlocking the thematic focus of the story. That’s not to say that these stories are pointless, or that they’re devoid of any important moments–because of course they have a point, and of course they have important moments; it’s just that those are all woven into the various circumstances that these characters find themselves in.

And let me just say, these stories are so propulsive, so intensely readable. I think a big part of this is because they’re very much built around narratives where things happen: people go places, do things, meet other people, talk to them, etc. Characters think about things, but they also do things, and the “doing” part is what really spurs the “thinking” part of these stories on. (I don’t know how to describe this in a way that doesn’t sound trite–don’t literally all stories feature people thinking and doing things?–but IT’S TRUE, OKAY.)

It would be impossible to review this collection without talking about Barrett’s writing, because it’s just stellar. Colin Barrett’s writing feels like a photo with the contrast turned up: everything stark and punchy and evocative. It’s so sensorily rich, all the details just pop. I highlighted a lot of descriptions, but here are some of my favourites:

“At the far end of Lorna’s table an elderly woman was supping on a bowl of vegetable soup the colour and consistency of phlegm. The woman was eating with great involvedness. As she brought each tremulous spoonful to her lips her features contracted in an expression of anticipatory excruciation.”

“Bobby stared at his teeth, which were neatly aligned and all the same, toothpaste-ad hue. He appeared to be nothing more than a nondescriptly handsome wodge of heteronormative generica, tidily styleless in a sweater and chinos.”

“It was only gone two in the afternoon, but the sky was already so grey it was like being on the moon, the light a kind of exhausted residue. To their right coursed the Moy, dark as stout and in murderous spate; to their left high conifers stood like rows of coats on coat racks.”

“Steven Davitt, the lad at the rear of this pack, was such a specimen. A comely six-foot string of piss, faintly stooped, with shale eyes darting beneath a matted heap of curly black fringe. He shied from looking her way, of course. In the middle was one of the Bruitt boys, the scanty lichen of an unthriving moustache clinging to his lip.”

Barrett is funny, too, and his sense of humour shines through in a lot of these stories. Sometimes the humour comes in the form of wry or witty comments, and sometimes in the form of cutting comebacks (sibling dynamics in particular are so well-portrayed here). “The Alps” actually made me laugh out loud at one point, so absurd and absolutely wild it was but still surprisingly moving.

Favourite short story is easily “The Ways.” Other favourites include “The Alps,” “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone,” and “Anhedonia, Here I Come.” I liked all the other ones, too; the only story that I didn’t really get was “The Silver Coast,” though I feel like it would definitely benefit from a reread.

As you’ve probably gathered already, this was a different kind of short story collection than I’m used to reading, but I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


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