Five short stories set around the world, from the author of The Blue Taxi (2006).
“Pearls to Swine” is a comic gem in which a perfect snob, Celeste, vents without censure or apology. A paragon of good taste, Celeste decides that the only fixture her graciously appointed home in Spa, Belgium, lacks is a guest to appreciate it. She resolves to invite two: the daughter of a friend from New York and a young woman who has taken refuge in a local convent after getting pregnant. Neither guest follows the script their hostess has imagined for them. The convent girl is particularly disappointing. Says Celeste: “What did I expect, you ask? Someone thinner, first of all.” Celeste’s outrage is purely aesthetic: She is offended that the girl doesn’t look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. “Wondrous Strange” is quite different but equally enjoyable. In it, an African djinn gives a middle-class, middle-aged English woman instructions for healing her husband’s strange malady. In the aforementioned stories, Köenings demonstrates an incisive yet generous understanding of human behavior that is reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch, and, like those authors, she is willing to entertain mystery without dissecting it. Occasionally though, in both “Pearls to Swine” and “Wondrous Strange,” nervous, amateurish tendencies appear, and these tendencies unfortunately dominate the collection’s other three stories. The title story is an interminable series of extravagant descriptions; “Sisters for Shama” is an elaborate concept—a storyteller conjures imaginary girls to replace a lost sibling—and not much else; “Setting Up Shop” is basically gossip arranged in the shape of short fiction. In these stories, Köenings relies heavily on exotic settings (East Africa, the Indian Ocean coast), overwrought metaphors and preciously ethnographic characters while providing little narrative substance.
An uneven collection, but the best entries are outstanding.