Childhood memories are a potent force in our lives, continuing to resonate within us even as we grow older and come to believe that we’ve left the magic of that early age behind. Ellen Klages’s collection of short stories recaptures some of the innocence and enchantment of childhood, in a series of tales by turn evocative, romantic and poignant. Sometimes her stories bring us into the world of children who are on the brink of new lives, new potential and new discoveries; while sometimes we find characters closer to ourselves: adults who have put away childish things, but who find themselves drawn back in various ways to the brink between that age and this. We find children confronted with the cruel realities of the adult world, and fairy tales for adults, with nods to fantasy, science fiction and straightforward fiction. There really is something for everyone.
Writing about a collection of short stories is always hard, and this won’t be a long post, because if I discuss any of the stories in depth I’ll end up giving away the endings and will spoil your fun. All I can do is give you a tantalising magic-lantern show of vignettes from several of the stories in the volume. A little girl breaks the trend by falling, not for the Disney princess, but for the witch Maleficent, who dares to be different. In a quiet suburb, two best friends watch a final sunrise together before one of them moves away; while, in another story, a vacation at summer camp turns into a beautiful study of shy first love. A couple of ladies who lunch take sharing their pudding to a whole new level; and two schoolgirls find themselves playing a board-game with a difference. One grown woman, returning to her childhood home, rekindles an old love affair; another must dispose of her late father’s cherished hanging ham. In misty San Francisco, a woman uses the power of maps and origami to save lives, always searching for the one who got away.
There’s a feminist turn to many of the stories. In Klages’s fictional worlds, girls and women have the power to direct their lives, save others and, using mathematics and physics, push the boundaries of what is possible. Yet that doesn’t always mean there’s an upbeat ending. On the contrary, on several occasions Klages ends her tale with a moment of such poised, haunting loss that I found myself demanding, ‘But then what?’ The story that touched me most in that regard was Woodsmoke, which seemed so idyllically simple and yet turned out to be so moving. Yet this is surely the sign of a good short story, which brings you into its world, makes you care about its characters’ predicament, and then spits you out the other end (again I think of Bede’s swallow flying swiftly through that hall).
I’m not a great reader of short stories and so I can’t immediately think of anyone to whom I can compare Klages, to give you a feel for her style. She isn’t as intense and sensual as Angela Carter, but occasionally her twisted endings or lyricism struck a comparable note. If you like reading the kind of short stories featured on Tor.com, which explore speculative fiction from all kinds of angles, then Klages will be right up your street and, indeed, if you enjoy reading about strong, clever or adventurous women, then I’d encourage you to dip in. Now, of course, I have to find out what else Klages has written. Any recommendations?
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review