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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Sad to say this was a total flop for me.

I read Ling Ma’s Severance a couple of years ago and while, admittedly, it was not my favourite book ever, I still remember thinking that it had a lot of potential, and that it boded well for Ma’s future releases. For that reason, I went into Bliss Montage cautiously optimistic, hoping that maybe what didn’t work for me in a novel would work better in a short story collection. Needless to say, my hopes did not pan out.

I’m tempted to say I had two “issues” with Bliss Montage–one with its narrative voice, and one with its storytelling–but really these are less “issues” and more fundamental problems with the collection’s writing as a whole. First, Ma’s stories are all almost tonally identical; there is so little variety in their narrative voices. It feels like every story more or less has the same melancholic, impassive narrator: lost women who are Going Through It to various degrees but whose dry, flat narration makes you feel like they’re all responding to their particular issues in the same way. On principle, I don’t mind more distant or inscrutable narrators, but when every single story feels like it’s a slight variation on one kind of narrator, then the collection starts to feel very one-note, and the stories start to blur together. This type of narrator might work in a novel with one POV because you have no other narrator to compare them to, but when I read a short story collection, I’m evaluating it on different terms than I would a novel: every story needs to distinguish itself, to stand on its own two feet. Narrative voice is one very noticeable way to do this–it’s great when it’s done well, but when it’s not, as was the case here, it becomes very obvious very quickly.

So much for tone; where I run into issues next is in the actual storytelling: I found the stories of Bliss Montage to be opaque and just really unsatisfying. I’ve liked collections with more elusive short stories before (Meng Jin’s Self-Portait with Ghost is one recent example that comes to mind); when done well, I think their opacity makes you gravitate towards them all the more, motivated in your attempts to try to see them more clearly. Bliss Montage‘s stories, though, shut me out rather than drew me in. I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what these stories were trying to say. I would start a story, and it would feel like it was going somewhere interesting, and then it would just end. The parts were somewhere in there, but the execution of the whole pretty much always fell flat for me.

Thematically, I’m not sure what this collection was going for. The synopsis says these stories are “eight wildly different tales,” and I’m inclined to agree with that, though not really in a positive sense. I don’t need every short story collection I read to be thematically cohesive–in a way, one of the attractions of short story collections is precisely the fact that they don’t need to be thematically cohesive as a novel would; they give you the latitude to dip in and out of very different narratives without the investment that a longer piece of writing would ask from you. But even with all this in mind, the stories of Bliss Montage felt so disparate to me–a fact that was made even worse by the tonal similarity issue. So the stories all read like they’re coming from the same narrator–or same kind of narrator–but the narratives themselves all feel so random. It was like I was reading random stories that were all being filtered through the same subjectivity, so even though the stories themselves were very different, they still ended up feeling very similar. Everything stood out, but also nothing stood out. It was a real lose-lose situation.

One last thing: I was so frustrated by how these stories’ endings almost always left me hanging. Again, I don’t categorically dislike vague or open-ended stories, but when every story ends right in the middle of things, it starts getting very annoying. It felt like these stories ratcheted up the tension, and then just went nowhere with it–the narrative equivalent of going up a rollercoaster without any of the emotional release of the actual going down part.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this collection, but I’m also not discounting it as a whole because there were some glimmers here and there of things that I liked, or at least found interesting. The writing, for one, is occasionally sharp and perceptive, and I did end up highlighting a few passages that I thought were well written or insightful. There were also two stories that I think had some compelling themes, specifically “G” (about how women relate to their bodies, especially as those relationships tie into family, friendships, and culture) and “Pecking Duck” (about mother-daughter relationships and how they’re [mis]translated in fiction). That’s about all I have to say in terms of positives, though.

Anyway, I was really looking forward to this. It sounded so cool, and then I read the first story and was like “ok this is weird, but let’s see where the collection is going,” and then…it never went anywhere.

Thanks so much to FSG for providing me with an eARC of this via NetGalley!

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Self-Portrait with Ghost is a strange and elusive collection, slippery and compelling, defying easy understanding and so drawing your attention all the more.

First: Jin’s writing is so impressive, at times keen and direct, at others more reflective and analytical. Her stories are elusive in the sense that they don’t easily give you that aha moment at their end, that moment that clinches together the whole point of the story and, in doing so, makes it immediately understandable. Instead, they make you look twice, go back and try to put your finger on what eluded you the first time, or else try to make sure that what you got out of the story was in fact in line with what it was trying to do. More than anything, they’re just really interesting stories: I didn’t fully “get” all of them, but rather than that alienating me, it just drew me to them all the more. I didn’t “get” all of them, but I wanted to–and that’s what ultimately made them so compelling to me.

Though all distinct in their own ways, these stories also feel like they’re echoes of each other, particularly in the way that some of them reconfigure themes and ideas from other stories. “Suffering” and “Self-Portrait with Ghost,” for example, both deal with the troubled (?) distinction between reality and unreality, what is real and what is not. In the former story, the narrator attempts to give us an account of Ling, a woman overtaken by an increasing sense of paranoia; in the latter, the narrator encounters the ghost of her dead friend, who forces her to question her approach to her academic work. “Philip is Dead” and “First Love” are another pair that felt complementary to me, both stories that explore how romantic relationships shape–or indeed warp–your sense of self. Where “Philip is Dead” examines this in the context of artistic practice, “First Love” delves more into the nature of want and longing.

“Alone, she inched toward that feeling. It was painful, unbearable, to not have another against which to orient herself. It was also the closest she felt to free.”

Thematically, the stories of Self-Portrait with Ghost are concerned with how we know ourselves through others: in contrast to others, in opposition to them, in imitation of them, or simply alongside them. It’s a collection that’s interested in how we construct our sense of self not just through relationships–friends, lovers, family members–but also through narrative and art more broadly. In some stories like “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Three Women,” this is more of a thematic focus, whereas in a story like “The Odd Women,” it’s very much literalized through the inclusion of speculative elements (the only story that’s overtly speculative). When it comes to thematic focus, the title of the collection also effectively gestures at what it’s interested in exploring: “Self-Portrait with Ghost” speaks to how self-portraits, this conception of our selves by our selves, can be based on illusory images we may have of ourselves, or even of others. (That’s my interpretation anyway ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

“Who are they, and who is he? The patches on Ling’s face are real–this I can see. So she has summoned me in, to read her life, so what is boring and endless might achieve the grace of plot. Because I do pity Ling, pity her suffering and its intractability, how she’s wound her life around herself in these most exquisitely foolproof chains. I pity her so much, I envy her. Would my own mind ever be capable of such imaginative feats as these?”

My favourite stories were “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Odd Women,” though honestly I felt like all of them had something that I liked or was drawn to. “The Odd Women” is the real standout here, in my opinion. It’s the longest story, and the most ambitious one, and it absolutely sticks the landing–which is doubly great, because it’s also the concluding story, ending the collection with a nice flourish.

Self-Portrait with Ghost was a collection whose stories I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in, but rather one that intellectually engaged me; a “thinking” book more than a “feeling” book–and a really great one at that.

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