The world is both terrifyingly huge and unbelievably small for the cast of characters in this debut collection from Ostlund (After the Parade, 2015).
The men and women who populate Ostlund’s stories are uncomfortable, formal, particular people. They have, as we all do, many secrets and believe, as we all do, that they will be able to keep them. They often go very far away from home only to see what should have been plainly obvious all along. They have theories about the world around them and observe it keenly, but none of these qualities can save them from life’s disappointments and anguishes. In every story, no matter where it opens or in what direction it moves, it's always already too late. In “Dr. Daneau’s Punishment,” a brilliant and severe mathematics instructor attempts to navigate a school full of dull-witted boys and student-coddling but cannot be saved from himself. A group of drunken expats encounters a troubled man who is about to abandon his wife, with devastating consequences, in “Idyllic Little Bali.” Two stories—“Talking Fowl with My Father” and “And Down We Went”—use framing devices of birds and being defecated upon by birds respectively as a way of examining the pain of loss. And in the title story, a brother and sister on the cusp of coming-of-age learn about the width, breadth, and fickleness of the world from their peculiar nanny. But despite these stories’ pervasive, powerful sadness, which always requires reflection and pause at each of their closings, their flawless execution—all tenderness, dark humor, and full realization—compels the reader onward. Ostlund will certainly soon be marking her place among writers like Michelle Huneven, Shirley Jackson, Alice Munro, Dorothy Allison, and Karen Joy Fowler—masters of their own devastating, immersive universes.
An achingly beautiful collection as unpredictable and resonant as life itself.