I never quite know how to go about reviewing short story collections. Since it’s not one cohesive work, it’s hard to proclaim one uniform opinion about the entire collection. Do I review each story individually? Do I form an opinion about the collection as a whole? In this case, since it’s a collection of stories by one author, I’m not going to bore you with a micro-review of each individual story, but instead tell you that, overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See and Other Stories (Small Beer Press) is a really great collection, with a few minor reservations.
Fowler’s writing converges meticulously detailed characterization with dark as hell slices of fantastic inserted into otherwise realistic (yet captivating!) stories. The subject matter varies wildly from an adolescent girl experiencing boarding school torture to an older woman reflecting on a deeply traumatic voyage into the Congo to a doctor’s disturbing experiences in the tunnels used during the Vietnam war. Do you see a theme here? If not, let me spell it out for you: Fowler’s stories range from dark to darker to darkest, the darkest of which (the titular “What I Didn’t See”) left me shaking from the effort it took NOT to sob in the middle of the library with students going about their teenager business. Despite my best efforts a few tears leaked out and yes, a teenage boy saw it happening and it was terrible. Despite the heaviness of the topics, Fowler’s writing is crisp without straying from the human heart of the stories she tells.
While the focus of each story is different, there are recurring themes of the conflict between perception and reality; the main character’s perception of often supernatural events is never fully verified nor denied, yet despite this there is the repeated assertion of how our perceived reality IS our reality, regardless of whether or not it is “real.” If the traumatized doctor in “The Dark” didn’t actually see “Victor” in those nightmarish tunnels of Vietnam, his lasting trauma is still real. Regardless of whether the main character of “Private Grave 9” actually photographed the ghostly face of a buried princess, the madness that ensues is still real. The repercussions of a perceived event, real or not, are almost more important than the event itself.
Now, even though the writing, premise, characters, EVERYTHING in these stories is super strong, I had a problem with the ending of almost every single story. It’s not that they necessarily ended badly, but more that they ended weirdly, as if in the middle of a thought. I’d be super into the story and then it would just be over, and I’d sit there thinking, really? That’s it? Maybe it’s because I have become so accustomed to the sense of closure and resolution that comes from reading books for the young folk, but the lack of resolution in each story felt like I was reading something unfinished.
The verdict: this is a solid short story collection that ranges from meh (both of the Boothe stories) to outstanding (“What I Didn’t See,” “The Halfway People,” and “Always”), just gird your soul for some devastating walks on the dark side. As a bonus, the cover on this is fucking AWESOME.
Where I got it: the lovely folks at Small Beer Press sent me a copy.