For fans of The Bewildered, this collection holds the promise of the earlier novel: the bizarre contrasted with the mundane, with the implied threat of the unknown and unexpected. The first story, “Blooms,” is more poignant than menacing, the parameters of yearning restricted by ritual, a man’s fertile imagination the only satisfaction he will derive from his relationship with a woman.
“Stranger” is a take on more contemporary relationships, a freakish confrontation throwing a young couple into stark relief against nature’s indifference, their experiences paling against the malevolent will of others. Then, in “Shaken,” a man realizes an obscure desire for change: “He has not felt surprised for a very long time and he feels the desire to be shaken.” To this end, he encounters the inexplicable, an otherworldly vision.
Touted as “those startling moments when what we understood as familiar is revealed as suddenly mysterious and foreign,” the surprises arrive from unusual juxtapositions of external, rather than internal realities. With the implication that “to assume the worst is to make it happen,” the stories are filled with the ordinary, elegantly described; but the situations, meant to unnerve, are jarring, each attempt at sleight of hand leaving the reader confused. The title suggests the nature of the collection, but, though they have odd moments of potential menace, the threats always dissipate with the dawn.
These intimate peeks into the secrets of people’s lives, if only in passing, carry less menace than the disturbed nature of the protagonists themselves, the stories vague, as though the author is circling certain emotions with images, where themes are acted out, characters positioned in the landscapes, confronting memories, disappointments, and losses, but without substance.
Stories inform when they reveal truths, when we recognize ourselves in others or share the burdens of their choices. But over and over, I ask myself why these people, this place, this situation? I struggle to locate the cohesiveness in this work, honestly wanting to like this collection.
And at the end of some (“Stranger,” “The Sharpest Knife,” “Gold Firebird”), I wonder if I have understood anything at all, which may certainly be my problem rather than the author’s. Are these Hitchcockian tales, or, as the jacket indicates, “Poe-esque”? For this reader, the characters never inhabit reality, a problem I find unsettling.