Stories You Can Chew Over

Short stories can be clever. They often make comments on society and focus intensely on a moment in time. Because of their brevity they don’t have to tell the reader everything or tie up every loose end. This invites readers to think, to fill in the gaps. Despite these positives I have not always liked short stories. My exposure to them at school and in tertiary education was usually as a random collection, or as a once-off in a magazine. This made for bitty, unsatisfying reading – almost like watching a variety show, or eating fluffy popcorn when I needed a proper meal. So I was very pleased, recently, to have read two books that were written as a series of interconnected short stories. Although true to the short story style, each story in the books was linked by overarching themes and a main narrative arc. The result was an in-depth, wholesome reading meal.

The first, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, is an adult read set in the fictional town of Maine, USA, and usually featuring (whether closely or distantly) the character of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a cantankerous woman who nevertheless has some wisdom, insight, love and faithfulness. Despite her many failings – nastiness to her husband, control and lack of understanding towards her son, and intolerance of others – the reader just cannot hate her. And by the book’s end she acknowledges her faults, thereby exhibiting growth and change. Each story in Olive Kitteridge describes different characters in an unhurried way, focusing on them as if through a magnifying glass. And together the stories dwell on the themes of ageing versus adult children, the search for meaning, vulnerability, acceptance, and extramarital affairs (or at least attractions that most of us, it seems, fall into). The latter is in no way seedy and is portrayed as simply an aspect of life. Eating/food is a constant, with one character suffering from anorexia, and Olive often being featured eating. Indeed, one of the most memorable and life-altering scenes of the book occurs after one night at a restaurant. Olive and her husband stop at a hospital on the way home to use the toilet and are taken hostage. More than the hostage drama itself, it is the hurtful things Olive and her husband say to each other, that cause the lasting damage. Although difficult subjects are dealt with in Olive Kitteridge, their treatment is not morose. It is beautiful.

The deliciously titled Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock also handles heavy subject matter in an engrossing and sometimes humorous way. It is a young adult novel on the shortlist for the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2022. Written in accessible language, it features teenage characters who invite reader sympathy as they deal with trauma. The main narrative arc here is one that involves child abduction and murder, while other subjects included are child molestation, gay relationships, and the power of nature in the form of biting cold and raging fires. The stories are set in small towns along the west coast of North America, from Alaska, to British Columbia to Washington. They feature main and secondary characters and, as the stories move along the coast, so each new story starts with a secondary character from the previous story who then becomes the focal point. Like a chain, snaking along the coast adding links as it goes.

Because of constant characters, bigger themes and plot lines I finished both Olive Kitteridge and Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town full and happy. But because of unexplained elements and clever titles, I was also left pondering, chewing over what this or that meant. The style of these books is a fabulous way to present short stories and I highly recommend them.

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