Thursday, July 06, 2017

Fiction Review: The World to Come

I don’t read a lot of short story collections, but Booktopia is always a good motivator for me to try one, as it was in 2015 with Kelly Link’s wonderful collection, Get inTrouble. Booktopia 2017 was no exception, and I recently finished reading The World to Come, a collection of historical fiction short stories written by Booktopia guest Jim Shepard.

This is an unusual collection of short stories in that most of them focus on real-life disasters, many of them little known. From an enormous volcanic eruption in 1600 BC to a destructive modern-day train derailment of oil tankers, there are all sorts of disasters covered in these stories, based on real-life events. In each case, the author focuses in on one fictional character at the center of the event, delving into his or her thoughts, feelings, and actions. A couple of the stories focus more on intimate situations, perhaps tragic to single person but not historical disasters.

Each story is intricate, moving, and very personal, even if it is based on a catastrophe that affected thousands of people. The magnifying glass is held up to a single person’s state of mind, as a way of looking at the larger event. One thing’s for certain: there are no happy endings here.

One of the stories that was the most shattering to me was HMS Terror, about the ships that were a part of the ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic in 1845, led by Sir John Franklin. In real-life, the wrecks of these ice-bound ships were only just recently discovered, so deeply buried were the abandoned vessels. Evidence of its crew was just discovered in the region in the 1980’s and 90’s. The story takes place at the time of the expedition, with the crews of the ships confident of the success of their mission. Shepard’s story is told through the diary entries of one man, Lieutenant Edward Little, who documents the doomed expedition in his personal journal. You know from the beginning things won’t end well, but the details and manner of his and his crewmate’s demise is still shattering, though filled with suspense and tension.

In the title story, a pioneer housewife in rural New York lives an isolated existence with her taciturn husband. She has endured unspeakable loss, and her loneliness and seclusion are broken only on Sunday afternoons, when a neighbor, Tallie, makes the trek over to her farm. The two bond over long talks in the warm kitchen. This story is also told through diary entries from the narrator because, as she explains, about their farm ledgers:
“But there is no record in these dull and simple pages of the most passionate circumstances of our seasons past, no record of our emotions or fears, our greatest joys or most piercing sorrows.”

The women’s happiness is short-lived, though, when Tallie’s husband takes her away and tragedy occurs.

Another story in the collection that packed a big emotional punch for me was Telemachus, about the HMS Telemachus, a British Royal Navy submarine in the waters of the Pacific in 1944. A gunner’s mate, bunking among the torpedoes with his colleagues, tells the story of the sub’s long ordeal, spending endless months hiding deep in the water, staying out of view of the enemy while also trying to sneak up on enemy ships to sink them. His account is gritty and real, with gruesome descriptions of the moldy clothes that resulted from the constant moisture, the carbon-dioxide-filled air, and the tinned mutton they survived on.

Each of the ten stories in this collection, whether two or 35 pages long, presents a close-up view of a single person in the face of colossal challenges or tragedies, delving into the background, dreams, and thoughts of that person. Despite this common thread, each story is completely unique and engrossing, peopled by relatable characters that seem like ordinary folks, stuck in extraordinary circumstances. Each of them presents a human perspective that we rarely get when we hear of disasters, big and small, in the news. After reading each story, I was driven to look up the historical details online (when I could find them) to learn more. Although the subject matter carries a feeling of dread (I might have preferred to read the stories separately rather than one after the other), each story provided its own riveting, moving portrayal of humanity.

258 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

The World to Come: Stories
by Jim ShepardHardcover

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  1. There is something intriguing about little-known disasters. I wonder why!

    1. I think you are right! These were a bit depressing for me one after the other but still TOTALLY compelling!