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Epiphanies and paradoxes

Two collections from Hamish Hamilton show the short-story form to be alive and well


All the Beloved Ghosts

Alison MacLeod

Hamish Hamilton Canada

The Dark and Other Love Stories

Deborah Willis

Hamish Hamilton Canada

PROVOCATIVE COMMENTARY decrying the death of certain literary forms has become so common that it practically constitutes its own genre. Poetry dies several times a year, and short fiction often seems to be on life support. While the short story has never been a dominant form, it is hardly going away. In fact, judging by All the Beloved Ghosts, the fifth book and second collection by Canadian-born, U.K.-based Alison MacLeod, short fiction has nothing to worry about until someone invents a more effective technology for transcending time and individual consciousness.

In “There are precious things,” the omniscient third-person narration alights one by one on the thoughts and feelings of each passenger in a subway car. A man heading to the hospital’s fertility unit avoids the gaze of a nun across the aisle – who has just had her hearing aids replaced and is delighting in ambient noise – because he has a vial of semen in his pocket. The story is an especially acute example of MacLeod’s rich characterization, wherein every detail, from a person’s vernacular to the contents of their purse, has been marshaled to conjure a coherent, complex individual who exists beyond the glance afforded by the text. MacLeod’s prose is evocative, densely packed with sensory description, and versatile, as apt to proceed via an extended metaphor as to culminate in a striking aphorism. Recalling people gleefully looting toiletries during the 2011 England riots, the protagonist of “Solo, A Capella” concludes, “Hope is cheaper than you think.”

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