First collection from Seiffert, who introduced us to her personal sentence in her universally praised debut novel, The Dark Room (2001).
The present-tense sentence fragment returns in the title story of this sheaf of 11 pieces: “Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study.” Light and inconclusive, it tells of an American student working on his Ph.D. in Poland who samples what he thinks is a deadly metal in a stream. He has seen Ewa, who works at the café where he stays, and her young son Jacek, swimming in the “poisoned” stream. When he warns them of their peril, they and he fall into daily exchanges. She invites him to dinner. He asks about the communist years. She says, “You want to hear about no food and unhappiness, yes?” When his lab report comes back saying the metal doesn’t reach Ewa and Jacek’s favorite swimming hole, he tells them nothing. He leaves the country, shamed by his silence. As with Seiffert’s earlier work, these pieces can be taken as field studies in many settings and eras. “Reach” (as in a school matron’s “We can’t reach your daughter”) is about a single hairdresser at an English beach town and her two children. She bonds with her son in a fury of craving at birth, but unwillingly, she delivers her daughter under anesthesia, and it takes eight years, the daughter’s near death from meningitis, then her persistent truancy from school for the mother to feel close to her. This can getcha awful choked up and leaky-eyed. In “Second Best,” Ewa of the opening story leaves Jacek (who feels criminally abused by her desertion) to go off to Germany with the Polish asparagus cutters, make some money, then seek out Jacek’s father, who abandoned wife and son by fleeing to West Berlin for work. Does the title forewarn too strongly?
No weak pieces here: only images hanging in a spoonful of water. Very much the story realist to match young Anthony Doerr.