Having just finished one book of short stories, I didn't expect to follow it with another, but I found this lying around and after I read the very contrasting reviews on GR, decided to make up my own mind before starting something meatier.
They are good, but all are concerned with loss in some form. Poignant, beautiful in places, but not much hope. Some are very affecting; others less so. A good collection, though perhaps not if you are recently bereaved or troubled in some other way.
THE BOY WHO TAUGHT THE BEEKEEPER TO READ
The time and place are vague, and the writing is spare and tender. It captures the pain of illiteracy, "Words bubbled up, excuses, fears, but remained foaming in his mouth... black letters blurring together, separating, making his head sore".
About the pain of bereavement, and the readjustments individuals and the family have to make. One says "Life has to move on", but another is unsure, "Does it? Why does it?"
Then, as they are getting used to the new dynamic, suddenly "the earth seemed to shift and heave treacherously, shaking their confidence, throwing them off balance. The sky tipped and ended up on its side, like a house after a bomb had fallen... Death was the final certainty, and this was uncertain. This would go on and on. Their whole lives would change but they did not know how."
As with several stories in this collection, there is a feeling of unstated dysfunction, or even imbalance: "The house seemed suddenly imbued with meaning, redolent of their past and precious to them... at night they lay and wrapped it round themselves, and held it to them."
This is about the loneliness, need and loss that can be found in a tight-knit community of travellers. It focuses on a girl and an old fortune teller, though the former never considered the latter's age because "she lived half of her life in the future, seeing it in the crystal ball and leaves, and the other half in the past, listening to the dead."
Equally apt titles would be "Revenge" or "Guilt" and it is about a group of boys at a school staffed by priests. They fight the rules, yet still want some boundaries: "They were allowed anywhere except Funland... Charlie had never minded... it was hell... beckoning and exciting and terrifying."
The dangers of meeting up with a school friend after many years, "I was everything she could patronise", though I preferred the description of the trendy restaurant where they met: "chrome and black and angular... They had tortured flowers with wire stays, and straitjacketed them in thin metal tubes. The napkins were origami... The menus were startling, scarlet boards lettered in spikes of black."
The aftermath of another loss: reminiscences, and trying to understand a strange and difficult mother.
The uncertainty of approaching adolescence and the quiet but growing awareness of adult issues. "After Christmas, she would be twelve. Thinking of that troubled her, she wanted to clutch at everything familiar and hold it to her... not able to let her grief out, and the truth in... Not wanting the future to begin."
A strange story about denial (of blindness!), secrets and misplaced shame, and another girl on the cusp of puberty, seeing people and relationships with new insight, but nervous of the fact: "She wanted to be home... to be as she had been, secure inside her old, unchanged self."
A completely different setting (a businessman in Siberia, or thereabouts), but continuing the theme of being a lonely outsider, desperate to fit in.