Upton’s (The Tao of Humiliation, 2014, etc.) latest collection comprises stories inhabited by characters entangled in either classic literature or their own convoluted tales.
In “A Shadow,” a maid discovers a piece of metal in J.M. Barrie’s sitting room on the morning of the author’s death. The item eventually finds its way to a boy, who’s haunted by an unrelenting shadow in his dreams, demanding he cut off a pirate’s hands. Well-known literary works play a significant role here, and Upton rarely disguises the source of inspiration. In “The Odyssey,” for example, 11-year-old, home-schooled Tahreen stumbles upon a man’s still-breathing body on the beach, like Nausicaä in Homer’s poem. Such references aren’t just dropped and forgotten. Tahreen, years later, judges her online-set dates based on each man’s response to her oft-told man-on-the-beach account. Upton sometimes makes broader bookish connections. The narrator of “Night Walkers,” for example—developing a distaste for reading after her husband leaves her for a writer/librarian—joins a book club since most members don’t actually discuss the books. Hints of fairy tales help shape the characters: the sudden appearance of apples makes an apparently meek elderly woman in “Ambrosia” seem sinister; in “Visitation,” Tiffany’s mother, wanting a bouquet for her daughter, may follow a flower-destroying groundhog down a hole. “Hello! I Am Saying Hello! Because That Is What I Do When I Say Hello!” is a standout, and not just for its title. In it, Natalie, who famously ruins things, like her cousin’s restaurant, questions why her friend Anita would ever ask her to be maid of honor. Upton, a published poet, infuses her narrative with lyrical details. A cynical Natalie believes her friend “had undone her marriage deliberately but carefully, the way a good tailor might rip out a seam without harming delicate fabric.”
Poignant, exquisite, and endlessly witty.