shining the spotlight on short story collections
Reviewed by Cherry Potts
“It’s going to be okay,” she murmured to him, over and over.
“It is?” Steve said wildly. “How? When?”
Let me state up front, I did not love this book. If that is going to upset you stop reading. The collection starts with a bang, with the title story Signs and Wonders, a tale of a marriage past its sell-by date, and a decision to divorce welcomed by both parties then derailed when the husband ends up in a coma. The wife’s reassessment of their relationship, and her relationships with others around them is clever, good-naturedly knowing and amusing, and the final bombshell delivered satisfyingly. Disappointingly none of the other stories match up to this miniature tour de force. Each of the stories has its merits but the accretion of the style had me huffing irritably. What seemed novel and clever in the first story left me thinking, what, again? by the fourth or fifth – I found the moving time along telegraphic this-then-this entirely appropriate in the life-on-hold of the wife of the coma victim in first story, but when it happened in other stories I felt like I was reading a treatment for a film.
It isn’t often I feel culturally marginalized. I read a lot of American writers, I get the obsessions with families – broken, fixed, stapled together in multiple steps and halves – but I found the failed relationships, families and family-neuroses here predictable and dull, as well as the literal and metaphorical car crashes, and the shallow female stereotypes, the needy neurotic daughters, women obsessed with having a child, control freaks, victims.
There are notable exceptions, and it seems to be the (slightly) longer stories that work best. A Month Of Sundays (another story about a car crash and a coma) uses a complex flashback structure to lead the reader to the realization of the different characters and how they interrelate, before settling into a more linear telling of a man’s awkward relationship with his daughter’s best friend.
Some of the stories flicker across a situation going – oh, look, she slept with his best friend, or see that, she let her stepson go missing in a foreign country, undermining the impact of these events. Reading them is like (I imagine!) flicking through a true-life scandal magazine. I found it very hard to care one way or the other what these people did, or why. Some stories are predictable: in Vigo Park the wrong woman is shot because of the popularity of a particular shade of red in winter coats. I knew this was going to happen far too soon, and ground my teeth until it did.
I found myself wondering whether Alix Olin disliked her characters as much as I did.
About the reviewer: Cherry Potts is the author of two short story collections, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and the editor/ co-editor for Arachne Press of several anthologies: Lovers’ Lies, Stations, Weird Lies and London Lies.