Elegant, lapidary stories that beg Ann Patchett’s question in the introduction: “Why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?”
Pearlman (Love Among the Greats, 2002, etc.) is a master of the form, without doubt, though, like V.S. Pritchett, with whom she shares several points in common, there is nothing at all flashy about her fictions. Her stories are lush, at least as compared to the aridities of all those Raymond Carver–inspired tales of the last quarter-century, and they range the world in search of reports about the human condition. Often Pearlman writes of misplaced and displaced people, whether Jewish refugees from World War II–era Europe or characters who aren’t comfortable inside their own skins; often her characters can barely communicate, mistrustful of and limited by language (“On the fourth Thursday in August the youngest grandchild at last deigned to speak the language she had long understood, and demanded, in grammatical English, to be taken with the other kids to a traveling carnival”); it’s not uncommon for one of Pearlman’s players to be reaching for a dictionary somewhere along the way. Pearlman’s characters, too, are often layered in symbolism without being mere ciphers, as with the protagonist of “The Noncombatant,” a note-perfect evocation of the moment Americans on the home front learn that the war in the Pacific has ended—which does not mean, not by any stretch, that the goddess Eris has left the earth (“He felt his dying staunched by her wrath, her passionate unsubmissiveness”). Most of these stories are earnest, often even grim, though Pearlman is not without a sense of humor that mostly manifests in giving taunting names (“the Sisters Scrabble and the geezer”) to some of her foils. But humor is not what these stories are about; instead, Pearlman favors the startling moral problem (what should we think of a travel writer who does not travel, but invents places?) and the poetic meditation on family history and the passage of time.
Lovely and lyrical—a celebration of language and another virtuoso performance from a writer who does indeed deserve to be better known.