Nine stories that reveal the strangeness underpinning even the most ordinary of lives.
In the title story of Beams’ debut collection, an elementary school teacher shocks her students by falling apart—quite literally—in front of the class. At eight pages, it’s the book’s smallest story, but it’s emblematic of Beams’ approach, in which ordinary characters are transformed, often in extraordinary, otherworldly ways. In “All the Keys to All the Doors,” a little-used room in the town hall may provide unexpected solace to a community reeling in the aftermath of a school shooting. In “Granna,” the newly single narrator takes her grandmother back to a family vacation spot and witnesses the mysterious effect it has on the older woman. Not all the stories are tinged with fantastical elements; Beams is equally interested in stepping into other realms by reaching into odd corners of history, as in “Ailments,” in which a young woman becomes obsessed with her sister’s husband, a doctor, during London’s Great Plague. But even when the stories do draw from the tradition of fabulism, they always feel wholly Beams’ own, from the unflagging elegance of the prose to the wisdom with which Beams approaches the complex emotional terrain her characters navigate. With other authors, this philosophizing can feel forced; not so here. Take this for example, from “Granna,” in which the narrator muses on her ex-boyfriend’s assertion that she should not have a child because she didn’t seem maternal: “Yet it seemed terrible of him not to have given her a chance, that largest of all possible chances, to transcend the way she seemed.” It is this gap between what the world seems and what is that Beams tackles so memorably in this collection.
A richly imagined and impeccably crafted debut.