shining the spotlight on short story collections
Lookout Books, 2011
“Of all the silences he had ever experienced, Meg’s was his favourite. It was not disappointed, like his mother’s; not bored, like those of the women he had courted; not embarrassed, like that of the search committee that had failed to award him the headmastership; not sleepy, like the students in late-afternoon remedial classes; and not terrifying, like his mute aunt after her stroke.”
On the middle shelf of my bookcase I have two piles of books, side by side. One is two feet deep and represents twelve novels I’ve yet to read. The other pile is for short story collections, and has just one book at present: this one. I’ll have read more stories, met more characters, laughed and cried and sighed more often reading this one collection than all the novels put together. Such is the skill of the author.
I thought long and hard about how best to review this collection. There’s not a single story I didn’t like, and a couple went straight to my list of “favourite short stories of all time”. But I didn’t want the review to be a rhapsodic fan letter, in case it achieved the opposite effect and put people off discovering the collection themselves. I decided the best way to review would be by examples.
In Hanging Fire, the heroine Nancy is on the point of departing her restrictive circumstances. This is a coming-of-age tale in which Pearlman demonstrates her mastery of character and relationships. An apparently impartial glimpse at the dynamics of Nancy’s family is made memorable by her choice of words and voice:
They were drinking gin out of teacups. Mrs. Hasken was placid. Aunt Laurette grinned under her globe of orange hair. Phoebe was currying her skirt with Nancy’s comb. They were not aristocracy after all – only stand-ins.
When this weird and wonderful collection of individuals speak, the story sparkles still more:
Phoebe said, “We were thinking of adopting a twelve-year old boy.”
“Any particular one?”
“No. We might settle for a second TV.”
“Your mother has taken up weaving,” Laurette said.
Mrs. Hasken said,
“We are otherwise unchanged.”
Pearlman’s talent extends beyond character and dialogue, however. Here she is describing place:
At a certain London hotel, where the tapestries are faded and the linen a wreck, you can feel heir to all that is gentle. Courtyards in Delhi are chalk by day, flame and cinnamon in the twilight. One hesitates to visit the Palais-Royal, yet behind that cold colonnade can be found an ice-cream parlor and a Romanian upholsterer.
Like Leo, who is describing his travels in the paragraph quoted above, Pearlman has a gift for whispering joyous secrets in our ears. The intimacy of her writing draws us into the stories and keeps us close to her characters.
My favourite story in the collection (the one that leapt to the top of my all-time favourite list) is Tess, a story about extraordinary endurance, and love. Tess is a two-year old, born with multiple defects and kept alive by a feeding tube, under the care of hospital staff. Tess is pretty, and cute, and all the hospital loves her. But it is time to decide what’s best for Tess, in terms of her long-term survival. Should she be kept alive? Or is her life too limited to justify the expense? Ethical, moral, medical and financial judgements must be made. The decision is made harder because of how much Tess is loved by those who care for her. Then there is her mother, whose love is different. Deeper, but also less complex. Tess’s mother understands only a fraction of the medical complications involved in her daughter’s long-term care. But she understands profoundly that which eludes the professionals: what life is really like for Tess; what it means to be kept alive.
I put the blanket back on. I watched her ear for a while. All those windings and curves. My little girl’s little ear.
The ending to the story is one of the best I’ve read. Powerful, shocking and redemptive.
Pearlman’s stories are set as far apart as Spain, Czechoslovakia, London and New England. A trio of stories follow the fortunes of Sonya and Roland, who meet during the early days of WWII and return to Paris after the war. Each of the three stories is self-contained and feels complete, but it’s a pleasure to rediscover the same characters elsewhere in the collection.
Pearlman is too good – and too careful – a storyteller to rely solely on her characters to carry her stories. With a couple of exceptions, each one in the collection has a unique idea, a plot and if not a resolution then certainly a revelation.
I’d go as far as to say that this collection should be required reading for all aspiring short story writers. It’s that good.
Read a story from this collection in Ascent
About the reviewer: Sarah Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008. Her fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I, II and III, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009, and Highly Commended in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010. In 2011, her story, The Mauve Throw, received an Honourable Mention in the Tom-Gallon Trust Award. Sarah’s debut novel will be published in 2014 by Headline. Her agent is Jane Gregory.