Sofia Samatar’s collection of stories reveals human (or not-so-human) tenderness as the aching of a wound, or the gentle kindness from another, or the vulnerability of the young. It’s a stunning collection of powerful stories with beautiful writing and many with creative ways of expressing the tale (essay format, journal entries, letters) that provides a unique depth and texture.
I love “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” a story in which a young woman comes to terms with her anger at the loss of her mother, sharing the stories with the reader, she keeps hidden within herself. The phrases “I don’t tell” and “I won’t tell” are repeated throughout, highlighting the need for new stories free of the pain and mistakes of the past.
On the flip-side of the relationship between mother and daughter is “Honey Bear,” an affecting story of a woman and her husband driving to the ocean with their daughter. The story sings with love and compassion. The woman is ill, the husband frustrated and over protective. She holds to her daughter with such affection in a world that is slipping away, dying. The ending of this story — which I will not spoil — shattered me. Love is so powerful. So is hope, however small.
Another deeply moving story is “Walkdog,” which is presented as an class essay about knowing one’s environment. The author chooses to write about walkdogs, creatures said to steal people away, forcing them to walk behind them for years and years. The use of footnotes here are critical to the way the story unfolds, gaps of the personal slipping under the seemingly academic, building into a story about a bullied boy and the girl who loved him, but not enough to protect him — all culminating in a heartbreaking conclusion.
Power structures are often explored in these stories. “Ogres of East Africa” — which I’ve read three times now and the story grows with each readingfor — shares the story of Alibhai a servant to a white hunter looking to track and hunt an ogre. As he records stories of ogres for hig master, he records his own history in the margins, his story slowly moving to the forefront of the text.
In a similar fashion, “An Account of the Land of Witches” presents the story of a slave finding freedom in a strange land in which boundaries are meaningless. Later a woman in our modern world goes looking for the history of this land, basing her dissertation on the slave’s letter and her master’s refutation, only to have her efforts stopped when the borders are closed by war.
There are so many more lovely stories in this collection — both “Dawn and the Maiden” and “Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold” stand out for me in terms of their beauty of language. Take for example, this passage”
My love is a river. My love is a brink. My love is the bring of an underground river. My love’s arms ripple like rivers in the moonlight when he unlocks the garden gate. — from “Dawn and the Maiden”
One could go one-by-one in an attempt to honor each story in its turn. But I’m afraid I don’t have time, so I’ll just say this is a gorgeous book, worth every penny in the cost of acquiring it.