Rebecca Makkai’ s novels—The Borrower and The Hundred Year House—have established her as one of the most talented literary voices today. Her short fiction has been selected for The Best American Short Stories four years in a row. Now the acclaimed writer returns with Music for Wartime, an anticipated collection of short stories, several of which were inspired by the lives of her paternal grandparents.
Like the librarian in The Borrower whose honesty is tested when young boy hides out in the local library, many of these stories feature ordinary people beset by highly unusual circumstances. After a university professor accidently kills a rare bird in “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” she is plagued by bad luck that puts both her job and her romantic life in jeopardy. A reality show producer manipulates an on-air love affair as her own relationship crumbles in “The November Story.” Other stories have an air of fable about them: “The Miracle Year of Little Fork” is about a community buffeted by extreme weather after the death of a circus elephant and in “The Singing Women,” a story stunning in its brevity, a composer records the folk songs of two women in a village slated for destruction.
In a 2013 Harpers essay, Makkai wrote thoughtfully about the complex political and creative legacy left behind by her Hungarian grandparents. These topics and related matters are explored in three re-workings of family anecdotes, as well as “Exposition” and “Suspension,” in which Makkai digs into emotionally loaded issues of memory and heritage. Although these stories pose more questions than they answer, they still carry a powerful charge and hopefully are a promise of more to come.
Music for Wartime has two masterpieces: “The Cross,” about a cellist who returns home from teaching at a summer music camp to find a cross on her lawn marking the spot of an automobile fatality and “The Museum of the Dearly Departed” about the aftermath of a gas leak in a residential building in Chicago. Both stories are quintessential Makkai—witty, intelligent, a little irreverent, but not afraid to venture into emotional territory.