Willis’s style is resolutely unflashy, and she doesn’t show much range of tone and mood, but this is a remarkably mature,...

VANISHING AND OTHER STORIES

The well-made, mostly downbeat stories in Canadian writer Willis’s debut collection feature characters with an intimate understanding of loss—loss past, loss present, even the losses to come.

In the title story, a daughter struggles to come to grips with the disappearance of her father, a writer—but the detective work here is to plumb the ultimately unsolvable mysteries of mind and motive. “Escape” features a formerly stolid and reliable doctor who, after his wife’s untimely death, first takes up nocturnal trips to the casino and then a not-quite-innocent-but-not-quite-sinister obsession with a female blackjack dealer who was once a sleight-of-hand artist. “Caught” recounts a dalliance between a female ichthyologist and one of her undergraduate students. Willis tells the story in the subjunctive mood, speculating, switching perspectives, blurring details: “There’s more than one way it could go,” she begins. “Outside the office there might be the shuffle of shoes on waxed floor…” In less steady hands this might feel gimmicky or showy, but Willis employs the technique with great patience and deftness, thwarting again and again the reader’s desire to find a safe and stable place to make judgments—that’s not, she delicately insists, the point. Several stories, notably “Sky Theatre” and “The Separation,” anatomize the complexities and pleasures of female friendship. The former ends with a fleeting, beautifully realized moment of connection between two high-school girls, the narrator and the class beauty who’s now confined to a wheelchair; the latter explores the fraught relationship between two young sisters traveling back and forth by bus to visit their father during a marital separation.

Willis’s style is resolutely unflashy, and she doesn’t show much range of tone and mood, but this is a remarkably mature, self-assured debut by a writer whose work will draw comparisons to Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-06-200752-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 9, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2010

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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