The first collection in more than a decade from Hempel offers a dizzying array of short fiction held together by the unmistakable textures of her voice.
Hempel is often called a minimalist, and that aesthetic is very much in evidence here. Of the 15 stories, 10 are two pages or shorter in length, but if you think this means they’re slight, you’ll want to think again. Rather, Hempel packs a lot into her narrow spaces: nuance, longing, love, and loss. “At the end, he said, No metaphors!” she writes in the title story. “…So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him. My arms the trees.” The effect is to articulate an idea and then to illustrate it simultaneously. “That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over,” she opens “The Quiet Car,” reminding us that all stories begin in the middle, with the characters’ lives already underway. And yet, for all the succinct deftness of these shorter pieces, it is in the collection’s longer entries that Hempel’s vision takes full shape. The remarkable “A Full-Service Shelter,” inspired by her longtime animal advocacy, uses a repeating structure—each paragraph begins with a variation of the phrase “They knew us as the ones”—to draw us into the futility and necessity of caring for dogs who have been abandoned, a tension that animates the narrative. “Greed” traces a wife’s simmering vengeance against the older woman who is sleeping with her husband; the interloper is appropriately named “Mrs. Greed.” Then, there’s Cloudland, a novella that fills much of the second half of the book, the saga of a disgraced private school teacher doing home-care work in Florida who gave up for adoption the child she bore at 18. Constructed as a collection of fragments, the narrative circles itself, moving back and forth in time and often leaving the most important details unshared. The brilliance of the writing, however, resides in the way Hempel manages to tell us everything in spite of her narrator’s reticence, teaching us to read between the lines. “I remember thinking,” she writes: “There will never come a time when I will not be thinking of this. And I was right. And I was wrong.”
Hempel’s great gift is that her indirection only leads us further inward, toward the place where her characters must finally reckon with themselves.