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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Dance Move

Wendy Erskine’s debut, Sweet Home, is one of my favourite short story collections ever, so I was thrilled to find out that she had another one coming out in 2022. Dance Move has all the trademark Erskine things that made Sweet Home so memorable: the stripped back, direct writing style, the incisive narratives that meander even as they cut to the heart of the matter. But something about this collection just didn’t click with me. Most of its stories left me confused or underwhelmed. Either way, my main reaction was mostly just, okay…?, and that is not the reaction you want to have after finishing a short story. As to why I felt this way, I genuinely have no idea. The writing was good, and the narratives weren’t poorly constructed or anything, but as a whole package, something about these stories didn’t work for me.

My favourite story was easily “Mrs Dallesandro”; it was the one I found the most memorable, and the one that really stuck with me as I was going through the collection. The other stories, not so much: I remember the broadstrokes of some of them, and the others I just completely forgot about (and it’s only been a month since I finished this collection).

Am I disappointed to be giving this collection a 3-star rating? Absolutely. I really thought Dance Move was going to be a sure winner, especially since I loved Sweet Home so much. But alas, twas not meant to be.

Thanks so much to Picador for providing me with an eARC of this via Netgalley!

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Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century was a little inconsistent as a collection for me, but on the whole I feel like its stronger stories really helped elevate it in the end.

The stories in this collection vary in genre: some skew more speculative or magical realist, while others are firmly set in the “real world.” Regardless of how they lean in terms of genre, though, all these stories are characterized by a sense of disquietude: there is always something that’s unsettling, not quite right. In some stories, what is unsettling is elusive, hard to put your finger on; in others, it is very much front and center, obvious though not necessarily comprehensible. In “The Doll,” a group of friends find an abandoned doll in the yard of a family whose members all tragically died; in “In This Fantasy,” a narrator takes us through the kinds of lives she imagines having and the personas that come with them; in “June Bugs,” a woman running away from an abusive relationship finds her house inexplicably overrun with june bugs.

“I am aware that I’m about to die. I have been kept almost entirely away from pain and violence, from complex sensation, from ordinary people who I now imagine will tear me apart like dogs. I feel the relief of a debtor releasing coins from his fist – a weight lifted, no longer beholden. Just imagine it: no longer feeling guilty for everything you have and don’t deserve, for an unjust world bent in your favor, paying the piper at last. Wasn’t it worth it, after all? My head on a pike for this sweet, short, pleasure-drenched life.”

Regardless of their particular narratives, the glue holding these stories together is Kim Fu’s writing, which is just pitch-perfect. Fu’s writing, in this collection, is clear and precise, taut in a way that allows it to be unflinching without feeling overblown or overly dramatic. Even more, it’s a writing style that is perfectly suited to the disquieting tone that these stories have. Nowhere is this more evident than in what was, in my view, this collection’s strongest story: “Twenty Hours.” In lieu of giving you a description of what it’s about, I’ll just leave you with its first line: “After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs.” And oof, what an incredible story. It’s not particularly long, but it is so bracing and incisive in the way that it just cuts straight to the heart of its narrative.

“I had poisoned her, a great wallop of poison in her morning coffee. So I didn’t have the defense of passion, a momentary loss of reason. Poison took forethought. Poison said: I wanted to be apart from you for a while. Then why not just leave the house? Why not go for a walk? No, it said more than that. Poison said: I wanted you to not exist for a while. I wanted to move through the world without you in it.”

This is what I mean when I talk about Fu’s writing being unflinching but not overblown; there is so much that’s disturbing about that passage, but the way that Fu delivers it is almost blasé, casual and so that much more unsettling when you read it.

(“Twenty Hours” was by far my favourite of the collection, but there were some others that I thought were particular standouts as well, namely “Time Cubes,” “Sandman,” “Scissors,” and “In This Fantasy.”)

Despite all the things I enjoyed about it, though, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century didn’t quite deliver on some fronts for me. As a collection, it’s a bit inconsistent in the quality of its stories. It’s not so much that some of these stories are bad, but more that the stories that are good are so good that they make the subpar ones all the more disappointing; the stories that stick the landing–“Twenty Hours” being a chief example–end up making the ones that don’t stand out all the more starkly. “Liddy, First to Fly” and “Bridezilla,” for example, I found a bit lackluster, lacking that oomph that the more successful stories had. A big part of that was, for me, their abrupt endings, which made them feel like the narrative got cut off before the story had really gotten started. There’s a fine line between unsettling and underwhelming, and though these stories felt like they were aiming for the former, in actuality they ended up reading as the latter.

Regardless, though, there was still plenty about this collection that I enjoyed. If you like your stories a bit fantastical, a bit supernatural, and a lot unsettling, then this is definitely the collection for you.

Thank you so much to Coach House books for sending me a review copy of this collection!

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