How to describe the stories of Sofia Samatar’s Tender? They’re all beautifully written, for one. Samatar’s language is economical and powerful, powerful because it is economical. In every one of these stories there is a line that makes you stop because it is so moving, so devastating, so poignant, so true-to-life. The short story lives and dies by its writer’s ability to deliver substance within a bounded span of pages, and it is exactly for this reason that Samatar’s stories hit their mark so precisely. Her language is just as a short story should be: sleek, compact, and clearsighted.
“I once heard a beautiful story. I suppose that’s why I write: because once somebody told me something beautiful.”
As for what the stories themselves are about, there is so much ground covered in terms of both depth and breadth. The collection is split into two parts, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” which is just so apt (and beautifully put). Tenderness is a potent concept undergirding all these stories, and in every story it bears different resonances, from the hopeful to the melancholy, from the playful to the grieving. And as for scope, these narratives are as wide-ranging as their styles. “Walkdog” is a story delivered as a footnote-laden essay written by a high schooler, spelling mistakes and all; “Olimpia’s Ghost” is an epistolary story whose protagonist receives no response to her letters; “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story (-within-a-story?). The more I list these stories off the more I realize that really, every one of them is so distinctly its own entity, suffused with a particular tone or flavour or atmosphere.
What are these stories about, then? So much, they are about so much: diasporic identities, imperialism, language, storytelling, myths, grief, alienation, technology, dystopic futures–and all explored with such nuance and insight. There was not a single story that I disliked, but my favourites were “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” (a gorgeous story to start off the collection), “Walkdog” (it made me cry), “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” (wry and playful yet profound at the same time), “Honey Bear” (one word: haunting), and “How to Get Back to the Forest” (an ode to the sheer force and vitality that female friendships can have).
One last thing: what distinguishes this collection from many other that I’ve read is, I think, that Tender‘s short stories don’t just benefit from, but indeed ask for multiple readings. This is not to say that they’re confusing or convoluted, but rather that after having read them for the first time, you get a sense that there’s so much material to be mined beneath the surface of their words, if only you look again and look carefully.
If you like short stories, if you don’t like short stories: read Tender. It’s a luminous collection.
(Thanks so much to Small Beer Press for sending me a copy of Tender in exchange for an honest review!)