I’m on record as liking my short stories weird. Authors can get away with things in short stories that would be unbearable if they tried to sustain it for hundreds of pages. So I was excited that Helen Oyeyemi’s new book was a short story collection. It seems like a perfect form for her. And the stories mostly work. Where they don’t, I think it’s because I wanted more.
Most of the stories seem to exist in a world that’s sort of our world, but not quite. Puppets are sentient, for one thing. There are some scientific advances that involve summoning a sort of ghost of an alternate life (or something). Certain characters appear in multiple stories. And there are lots of keys. Keys to secret rooms and secret gardens, spare apartment keys, diary keys, keys that have been melted. Keys are ominous, as Rowan, a wooden puppet in “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” observes:
A key ring gets left in your care and you reject all responsibility for it yet can’t bring yourself to throw it away. Nor can you give the thing away—to whom can someone of good consciences give such an object as a key? Always up to something stitching paths and gateways together even as it sits quite still; its powers of interference can only e guess at. The wooden devil suspected keys cause more problems than they solve, so she followed Myrna with one plan in mind, to do her bit to restore order. Myrna’s home had seemed like a clever—and strictly temporary—hiding place. But with typical slyness the keys had let Rowan in and then been of no assistance whatsoever when it came to getting out.
A lot of the time, locks should just stay locked. (The final story, with the wonderful title, “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” makes that idea perfectly clear.) But once in a while an unlocked door leads to treasure, so maybe it’s worth the risk?
There’s humor in several of the stories. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” is an amusing send-up of online fan communities, with some dark twists. It’s perhaps one of the least inscrutable of the stories, and one of the most entertaining. “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society,” about a college women’s group, is similarly dark and funny.
More poignant is “Presence,” about an experimental approach to helping people who are grieving. This was one of the stories that I wanted more of. The narrative goes on some detours that never fully paid off, and I wanted to explore more of the corners of that world. But maybe not the part involving puppets, as this story is linked to “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” with its sentient puppets. That story is one of the longest in the book, and I felt its length. There was a lot going on, but it never seemed to go anywhere.
I didn’t enjoy this collection quite as much as I’d hoped, but I am finding more to appreciate as I reflect on the stories. Even some of the weaker stories, like “Drownings,” included some arresting images, such as that of a woman being burned to death who “took him [her killer] in her arms and fed him to the fire he started.” Oyeyemi deals in images. Some of them may just be there to be marveled at, but some, like this one, lead to bigger ideas. It would be fun to discuss these stories with others, to make sense of them together.