"Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories" by Edward Hamlin

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In Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, Edward Hamlin demonstrates in nine dazzling selections an uncanny insight into human grief and guilt and expiation. On his way to a very well-deserved Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2015, Mr. Hamlin has produced a series of vivid, highly varied, and completely convincing pieces - they’re stunningly clear in their emotional depth and uniformly excellent in execution.

They range from a tenebrous midnight in the Moroccan desert, to the parched aridity of an isolated town in the western U.S., to the backwoods of fundamentalist cruelty and familial abuse in the Ozarks, to murderous and frozen New York at its worst. The collection leads off with "Indígena", a gratifyingly balanced account of a woman whose father was a fugitive Irish revolutionary and assassin. Her familiarity with weapons and understanding of the true meaning of being on the lam may have saved her from drowning in the raging Amazon River. This memorable story sets the tone for what follows: swift pacing, unexpected plot turns, and reverberant finishes that generate questions as often as they answer them.

The cover story follows, a simply beautiful, clear, and wrenching story about a woman who finally begins to come to terms with crushing guilt, desperately firing an assault rifle in the middle of the Moroccan midnight, naked and screaming. "Light Year" and "One Child Policy" take up the terrible outcomes for two very different American women, a professional photojournalist who is losing her eyesight and an frightened Chinese immigrant trying to make her way in a New York populated with bigoted thugs and a blizzard. The author fills these stories with effective background, as he does with every entry here, with a minimum of language and a maximum of effect.

"The Release" is the most emotionally affecting story among a lot of strong entries. In it a woman tries to balance her interests with those of her recently deceased husband’s ex-wife, and the emotionally handicapped daughter from the first marriage. How she succeeds at this is one of the truly surprising results in this collection full of surprises. In "Not Yet", "Head Shy," and "Clemency," we witness men whose variety of misdemeanors come from their wildly different backgrounds and personalities, but in which death is a constant, but the movement toward redemption is not.

Even in these brief stories, Mr. Hamlin reveals character only gradually, as the disastrous, or unfortunate, or careless, or simply misguided, events and impulses become clear and overtake the action and resolution. I have not been so impressed by a collection of short stories in quite a long time. These are all splendid, each with their multiple attractions, and deserve as wide an audience as we can muster. Without a doubt, take these up!
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