Swan achieves the best possible of historical tones, neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but simply matter of fact, making...



Canadian Swan debuts with a wonderful collection of 13 stories and a novella.

“It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. One thing they’d seen or heard that they couldn’t shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart.” The quote refers to Swan’s odd gathering of recollections and remembrances—each titled, like a story collection within a story collection—making up the life story of twin girls who seem bent on self-destruction. World War II is included, through letters and testimonials, as the girls, by now women, take part in the war effort only to wind up, at war’s end, committing the desperate act foretold in the beginning. The title piece, a 2001 O. Henry winner, is really a novella—like, say, Tobias Wolff’s “The Barracks Thief”—at least to the extent that it’s a perfect expression of the form. Other “stories,” though, include “Max—1970,” about a young man whose suburban stupor is exacerbated by his father’s trying to teach him how to fix an unbroken washing machine; “In the Story That Won’t Be Written,” about a divorced woman, lamenting the growth of her daughter and her ex’s new life, who tries to find an analogy for her own life in an old photograph that doesn’t offer up a meaningful narrative; and “The Manual of Remote Sensing,” giving a litany of men who come in an out of a woman’s orbit, leaving her with a kind of clairvoyance (“Watching him leave she knew with a sick certainty that he wouldn’t come back, that he would leave her there, lingering over a cold cup of coffee . . . . ”). The characters here often immerse themselves in the past, so it’s no surprise that suicide by water is a recurrent theme.

Swan achieves the best possible of historical tones, neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but simply matter of fact, making her tales of the past ultimately timeless.

Pub Date: April 8, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-50851-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet