The stories recall different eras stylistically as well, bearing echoes of Cheever, touches of O. Henry, and, in one...

ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES

The British author of Waterland crams enough life into these vignettes and full-blown stories to be justified in slyly giving his third collection a country’s name.

The opening story sets the recurring theme of postwar changes and displays Swift’s (Wish You Were Here, 2012, etc.) skill in compression, low-key humor, and keen glimpses into the marrow of lives. A roofer born in 1951 does well in the building boom after World War II and even better when he shifts to window cleaning for all those glass-clad high rises. The end of the Raj gets a twist with a second-generation Indian doctor recalling how his Anglophilic father was glad the war had brought him to a land he’d come to love in books, with its “thatched cottages, primroses, bluebells.” Many stories deal with the pain of love and loss. After a young couple sees a lawyer to make their wills, the husband tries to document his love for his wife in a letter never shared as the story moves inexorably to divorce and lawyers, “in duplicate.” One story harks back to World War I, quietly building to a wife’s torn feelings at learning her husband of more than five decades may have abused their daughter years ago and hating her grown child for making such claims so late in her parents’ lives. It’s one of the collection’s rare showcases for a woman. The book ends with the title story, an encounter between a comedian and a coast guard officer who might well speak for Swift in his bemusement about how little he knows of the island he watches over.

The stories recall different eras stylistically as well, bearing echoes of Cheever, touches of O. Henry, and, in one chilling case, of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” With few weak spots and more than a few killers, it’s a potent gathering.

Pub Date: May 19, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-101-87418-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2015

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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