Sensitive insights conveyed in elegantly plain prose—an auspicious debut.

IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS

Ten stories cast an unsparing yet tender eye on the human condition.

The death or impending loss of a loved one drives every narrative in this poignant collection. Jack Snyder’s daughter Lila, blinded at six in a freak accident, is now 17 and poised for independence, but he’s not really ready to give up being “The Guide” as he takes her to choose a dog. Claire lost her beloved husband to cancer when she was 36; three years later, she clings to grief so tenaciously that she loses Kevin, the good man who loves her. The author so warmly draws shell-shocked Claire and faithful Kevin that we hope for a happier resolution beyond the last page of “Pine,” but in this collection mistakes are mostly irrevocable. Jeremy’s bitter response to an incident of teenage recklessness destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his daughter before “A Country Where You Once Lived” begins, and a visit after 13 years of estrangement merely underscores that ex-wife Cathleen and daughter Zoe have an intimacy based partly on his exclusion. Jeremy’s new love for the much-younger Rose offers hope that fresh starts are possible—“wishes made correctly do come true,” asserts the title character in “Harriet Elliot.” But note that caveat, and people seldom do things correctly here. The collection’s most wrenching piece, the title story, is a monologue by a woman whose arrogant young neighbor builds a six-foot-tall wall on their mutual property line. He doesn’t care that it forces her to park 20 feet from her door, a long way for a woman dying of cancer, or that her devastated husband is trying to figure out how to break the news to their brain-damaged, institutionalized son. Neither Black nor her characters have any use for “the fantasy of putting things to rights,” or “the myth of uncomplicated lives.” Yet there is redemption in finding the courage to love and the wisdom to see clearly.

Sensitive insights conveyed in elegantly plain prose—an auspicious debut.

Pub Date: April 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6857-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2010

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

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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