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Like the miniatures of Joseph Cornell, these 24 stories by Australian writer Bird are exquisite bite-size maps of moments. With the exception of the long title story, most are very short and akin to prose poems, amplifying a central instance until we hear underground emotions flaring out into the open. Bird successfully manages, as she puts it in one story, to assemble facts in a special way until she creates something beautiful, something with ""the freshness of dreams."" The stories here are of three types. The best are small domestic fables told with understated precision: in ""Boy and Girl,"" a brother hates his new sister and therefore devotes himself to her, until they both drown. ""The Woodpecker Toy Fact"" is ostensibly about maggers, or Australian gossips, but it's obliquely and effectively about how fiction comes to be written and how it tells or fails to tell the truth. The second type of story includes poetic prose poems like ""Goczka,"" a wonderfully compressed folk tale from the point of view of a child in war-torn Poland, The third type of fiction, and the least successful, attempts social satire: pieces that are either superficial (""Higher Animals""), too flippant (""Seeking Its Level""), or too mannered (""In the Conservatory""). Finally, the title story, told in epistolary and journal form, is a powerfully cumulative tale of quiet madness--the result of loneliness and grief--in a small Tasmanian township. Bird is a gentle and successful fabulist, more in the tradition of such Canadian writers as David Arnason or Carol Shields than any writer in the US. Her book is a worthy addition to any collection of contemporary short fiction.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1988
Publisher: New Directions