When I heard that Robin Black was going to be the Sirenland Fellow for 2009 and that she had published a story in One Story, I moved quickly to my back issues and began to thumb through. I only save the stories I love and pass the others forward. Of course I’d saved her story. She writes the kind of stories I love.
Ten stories, including “Harriett Elliot,” first published in One Story, make up this collection. [no spoilers here] These stories catch the ordinary moments in life–a new girl at school, a neighbor building a fence, a father taking a daughter to meet her first seeing-eye dog:
“As Jack scans the road for signs, Lila is proclaiming to him in those certain tones of hers that if it weren’t for being quite so blind and having to have one, she’d definitely never get a dog. Never. Never ever.”
Notice the way we hear Lila’s voice without the first person, without her point of view, and without a direct quote.
Although I don’t have a favorite story, I do have a favorite first sentence. It comes in “A Country Where You Once Lived.”
“It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London to the village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband–a man Jeremy has never met–have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seem to carry you much farther than the time might imply.”
Trees, like guides, have two sides to them. In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean walks her daughter Brooke to her car.
“The roof, sunroof, hood were all splattered with bird droppings. ‘Stupid,’ Brooke said. ‘Acres of open field, and I park under a tree. I was thinking shade, when I should have been thinking bird.'”
The stories in this collection slow the ordinary moments down so that you feel their underside; there’s a pause, and then they expand with wonder. From the third story in the collection, “Immortalizing John Parker:”
“A streetlight comes on. Clara waits to see how long it will take another to join it. A minute passes, two minutes. Nothing. They must have different levels of sensitivity, she thinks. They must believe different things about what darkness is.”
In “The History of the World,” the last and longest story and the only story with more than one point-of-view character, this is from Kate:
“She has been many women, she understands, has slipped surefooted through the years from one identity to the next. Daughter, sister, wife, mother. And now to be this–to be a woman without even the illusion of knowing herself. The sensation is like flight.”
These are the stories of our lives. They are the kind of stories that will crack your heart open. They will remind you, you have a heart, in case you’ve forgotten.
“The idea that as loved as we may be, we may also be forgotten. If only for a day here and there.”
In each of these stories, worlds seem as if they’re about to collide, but instead, they hover–one world on top of another for just a moment so that the light all around changes. Like in an eclipse. And it’s that moment that causes these stories to expand before your eyes.
Love your post and the book.
I can’t pick a favorite story either.
I especially like what you wrote at the end, how it seems like the worlds are about to collide, but instead, they hover. Like in an eclipse. That is a perfect description. It makes me want to read the book again!
Thanks, Kathleen. I’ve actually read most of the stories twice. And they just get better!
So true that “these are the stories of our lives. They are the kind of stories that will crack your heart open. They will remind you, you have a heart, in case you’ve forgotten.”
I loved every story, too, but my favorite is “If I Loved You” because it has never left me. Robin’s collection is unforgettable and achingly beautiful.
Darrelyn, I really liked that one too. It’s so different, and I love how the tension builds and builds and builds until that last sentence.
I’ve never read this book; however, based on your excellent review, I am persuaded to place it on my list. Thank you for sharing the excerpts and your thoughts. I especially liked the excerpt from “Immortalizing John Parker”:
They must believe different things about what darkness is.
How true for all of us.
Stephen, If I loved you, I would tell you this just came out at the end of March, and I highly recommend it. If you read it, let me know how you like it. Nice to hear from you again.