I wasn't looking for a new book when I went into the library last week. There are stacks of library books on top of and next to my bedside table. The shelves in my office are loaded with books I own and haven't read. My schedule is full and will get even more full with the explosion of end-of-the-year activities at my kids' schools. The last thing I needed was another book I wouldn't be able to focus my full attention on.
But I am a compulsive skimmer of the New Books Shelves at the Greenwood Library. My fingers twitch when a cover or interesting title catches my eye (take note book designers, good covers do attract).
And there it was: a mountain gorilla floating in an open, homemade submarine on the cover of What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler. How could I resist? Especially when the blurb inside says that in these stories "the fantastic and the uncanny lurk just below the surface of ordinary lives...?"
It's a great description. The characters in these stories do seem ordinary, familiar. We know them. That teenage girl....You know, the one down the street who's doing a little experimenting, breaking some rules. Or the elderly woman the next block over...wasn't she an explorer or something in her youth? That guy...you know he was never the same after Vietnam. Or the woman in the house by the waterfront, what's the story with her child?
All of these ordinary people have something in their lives that takes this very sense of familiarity for a turn. Each story takes our expectations and tilts them sideways so we both connect with and find ourselves at a distance from what is going on. It makes for compelling reading.
I've written before about the difficulty of the short story form and how much I admire writers who are masters of the craft. Karen Joy Fowler is my new favorite. There is not one story in this collection that can't hold its own against the others. Fowler grabs our interest from the first paragraph; she builds tension and suspense through each scene; we see the characters develop throughout the arc of the story; and we wish for just a little more after each one ends, even when that ending is perfect.
Did I need another book to add to my pile the day I went to the library? No. I wanted Karen Joy Fowler's What I Didn't See, I just didn't realize it at first. What I Didn't See never made it to the pile of unread books. It traveled around with me, providing much needed interludes of story during a week in which downtime seemed impossible to find.