Stellar short fiction full of feeling

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There’s a natural inclination for a book reviewer to want to point out to readers either the best or their favourite story from a given fiction collection. But Portland, Maine author Lily King makes that impossible. With the exception of two shorter and disappointing pieces near the collection’s end, her debut book of short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter, is absolutely magnificent.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/01/2022 (214 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a natural inclination for a book reviewer to want to point out to readers either the best or their favourite story from a given fiction collection. But Portland, Maine author Lily King makes that impossible. With the exception of two shorter and disappointing pieces near the collection’s end, her debut book of short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter, is absolutely magnificent.

King is the author of five longer works of fiction, including the novel Euphoria, in which anthropologist Margaret Mead navigates a love triangle, and the glorious 2020 best-selling novel Writers and Lovers, which focuses on a young woman searching for love while grieving her mother’s accidental death.

There is considerable overlap between the themes and experiences related in that latter novel and most of the 10 stories in this new collection. Many of the short stories are focused on distant or missing mothers, suddenly single parents, unrequited love and lust, caregiving and an obsessive calling to put words down on paper — to write.

Five Tuesdays in Winter

In fact, many of the characters at the core of these stories are aspiring or future writers, and much of the memorable prose in these stories is about the craft of writing.

In the remarkable story Timeline, Lucy, a waitress determined to become a writer, acknowledges, “I knew I was going to write a lot of stupid things that made me cry before I wrote anything good.”

Later in the story, reflecting on a hectic day that involved a wedding, Ethan Frome, a child welfare agency, an adult game of Duck, Duck, Goose and two men vying for her attention — one of them wearing a sari — Lucy adds, “…someday soon I’d sit at the desk and freeze it all into words.”

Lucy is one of the older narrators in a collection that permeates with youth — teens and tweens just learning to love, to mourn and to forgive. These characters include 14-year-old Carol who, in the opening story Creatures, works as a mother’s helper for a wealthy New England family while imagining herself to be the next Charlotte Brontë. Twelve-year-old Paula, who slyly masterminds a hesitant courtship between her unemotional, by-the-book bookkeeper father and his new employee in the title story, is another one of King’s vivid creations.

The collection’s list of characters also includes the sullen pre-teen Hanne in the story North Sea, a heart-wrenching account of a mother’s attempt to reconnect with her daughter two years after their husband and father’s death.

“Adults hid their pain, their fears, their failure,” the mother observes in that moving story, “but adolescents hid their happiness, as if to reveal it would risk its loss.”

Such acute and accurate observations permeate King’s graceful, generous storytelling. Similarly, her depictions of places and people — whether young or old, male or female, kind or callous, German or American — are uncannily precise and profoundly human.

King’s people may be confined to just a few pages in a slim volume of short stories, but they are people who will linger in readers’ minds long after their individual tales have been read.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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