Short fiction can be as emotionally complex as songs and as precise as poetry. The writers who do it well leave us in awe. Three new short story collections from masters of the form offer all the power and surprise of great novels.
If I Had Two Wings
A good short story requires focus. A novel can expand and digress and reckon with its form anew with each passing chapter, but short stories must be tighter, more concentrated, like an espresso shot. In his new collection, If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan proves once again that he belongs to an elite group of short fiction writers who can master plot and character to create perfectly balanced little miracles of focus and style. Returning to his fictional locale of Tims Creek, North Carolina, Kenan takes us on 10 captivating journeys of change, loss, redemption, salvation and even a little magic. And while the stories share a geographic connection in some way or another, each feels like it exists in its own rich, fully realized space.
What reaches out and grabs the reader right away, though, is not the place but the power of voice infused into every story, from that of a young girl who encounters a magical man in a creek, to a man reconnecting with an old flame after the death of his lover from AIDS, to an old woman who’s put in front of TV cameras as a miracle worker, to a working-class man who runs into a rock star during a trip to New York City. The characters’ voices will leave you wanting to reach out to them again, to read on even after their stories have ended. Kenan’s collection is a treasure.
In the Valley
Ron Rash is a poet, novelist and author of award-winning short stories whose work is steeped in the history and culture of Appalachia. His latest collection, In the Valley, features nine haunting stories set in rural North Carolina from the Civil War to the present, followed by a novella continuing the saga of Serena Pemberton, the maniacal wife of logger George Pemberton from Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena.
Each of the stories encapsulates a scene from the backwoods of Appalachia, often portraying a character struggling to do the right thing when given the opportunity to stand up to evil. In “The Baptism,” a small-town pastor faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to baptize a man he knows is a child molester. “Neighbors” explores the senselessness of the Civil War, which pitted friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor. Most memorably, “Ransom” paints an indelible portrait of a young woman kidnapped and forced into opioid addiction, all to satisfy a man’s revenge against those who caused his daughter’s death.
Serena, on the other hand, is the epitome of evil itself. In this sequel, Serena returns from Brazil to North Carolina, where she plans to harvest mahogany. She’s at risk of losing a large sum if she doesn’t meet a seemingly impossible deadline for clear-cutting the last ridge in a vast forest, so she pushes her crew relentlessly, leading to several deaths and amputations—inconsequential, in her mind, as long as she meets her deadline.
Serena’s greed and its long-term effect on the environment find echoes in the present, as environmental activists fight to preserve migration routes, ancient dwellings and petroglyphs from mining and drilling.
Rash profoundly immerses readers in the Appalachia he calls home. His latest collection is highly recommended not only for readers who value protecting our environment but also for anyone who enjoys well-told stories of justice and revenge.
When a short story is operating at its peak, it’s able to convey a novel’s worth of emotional depth and allure. Francesca Marciano possesses this gift, a special magic that allows her to say so much in just a few thousand words, as demonstrated by her new collection, Animal Spirit.
The six stories all feature a character at some kind of crossroads, often having arrived suddenly and with loads of emotional baggage. And in each story, animals arrive to shift the balance, from a small white dog on a road at night to a flock of troublesome seagulls that represent much more than a nuisance on a Roman terrace.
Marciano displays a spellbinding sense of control over her characters, and she does so with surprising brevity and well-composed pacing. In some tales, the narrative perspective shifts so quickly that another writer might have lost the emotional thread that knits it all together, but for Marciano, these shifts feel like an essential part of her deft, intense style. There’s a sense of confidence in each sentence that allows the reader to be as vulnerable as her characters.
Animal Spirit is a passionate, compelling exercise in the fine art of short fiction. It’s proof that the most intimate narratives are often the most powerful.