Impressive work from a virtuoso.



Death haunts this dark collection of 10 stories from Tuck (I Married You for Happiness, 2011, etc.).

Ella is an American divorcee raising her children in France in the title story. She’s a tenant on the estate of one of the richest (and oldest) men in the country. Her arrival coincided with a horrendous plane crash nearby; hundreds died. Ella has been summoned to dinner with her landlord on a cold winter’s night: The story is suffused in existential dread. That same dread affects Maud in "Ice." She and husband Peter, retirees, are on an Antarctic cruise. Peter’s nighttime disappearance, re-awakening her old fears, is far more frightening than the surrounding icebergs. "Lucky" is more complicated. Six characters’ lives intersect; the model is the play/movie Six Degrees of Separation. An alcoholic crashes his car and dies; that’s the heart of a story remarkable for its technical expertise. That expertise is also evident in "Sure and Gentle Words." It begins with a German professor’s mysterious and fatal fall from a train in 1911, touches lightly on two momentous sexual encounters and one world war, and ends some 20 years later with the professor’s son interpreting that fall in his film. Dislocation is a recurrent theme. An American couple discovers that going native in Thailand can have a boomerang effect: It’s not pretty. ("Bloomsday in Bangkok"). "Pérou" offers a more extreme example of cultural dislocation. A young French nanny travels with her employer to South America in 1940 to avoid the war. Her fate there seems almost gratuitously cruel. There’s nothing cruel about Chingis in "The Riding Teacher," though he’s a descendant of one of the great killer conquerors of history, Genghis Khan. All that this gentle, unhappy man has inherited is superb horsemanship. Leave contemporary cruelty to Mark, the unfaithful husband in "My Flame," who takes shocking advantage of his vulnerable niece in a story that burns with a wicked flame indeed.

Impressive work from a virtuoso.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2016-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

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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.


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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