"Breaking News" by Shirani Rajapakse

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Shirani Rajapakse has produced a series of short pieces in “Breaking News,” and taken together they give us a memorable and highly affecting cross-section of Sri Lanka cringing in the grip of terror. Various viewpoints center the stories, from the man who loses his leg to a land mine (only to go home to misunderstanding and callous disregard), to the woman who loses her husband and two grade-school sons to marauding soldiers in one moment – her husband is killed on the spot and she never sees her sons, aged five and seven, again.

Loss pervades these pieces, some of which are little more than snippets. Atrocities, most of which are attributed to the Tamil Tigers, rip families apart, result in the murder of innocents, and destroy lives. The language is simple and unadorned, marked by a starkness exactly appropriate to the subject matter. The stories contain oblique descriptions of people and places, but pain and loss form the major chord in these related arias. “Emerald Silk” portrays a woman removing herself from a marriage and a concrete high-rise in which she feels herself cut off from the milieu in which she feels most comfortable, the earth. This story, and “Sepalika,” display the collection’s most effective descriptions of natural surroundings.  “The Boy from Wellawatte” depicts a young Muslim man who completely changes what he’s comfortable in, and it isn’t home and hearth. Bodies bob to the surface by the score and run aground in a mournful piece called “Like Driftwood on the Kelani.” As the body count grows and the local population tries to cope, a young woman finally gives up hope of ever seeing her lover again. In this piece, the river is anthropomorphized as an unwilling partner in the terror and war. It is a fine touch.

Whether warfare, poverty, displacement, or terror is the immediate cause, the stories in “Breaking News” lay bare the suffering so widespread in war-torn Sri Lanka. As I said, I found it a highly affecting collection, and apparently I was not alone. It was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2010. The Gratiean Prize honors creative writing in English in Sri Lanka. I congratulate Ms. Rajapakse and thank her for the privilege she bestowed on me by providing a manuscript copy.

"Rust" by Julie Mars

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In a marvelous, winning metaphor, Margaret Shaw, the protagonist of Julie Mars’s “Rust,” wants to learn to weld. Ms. Shaw, a New York artist with more talent than accomplishment, has tired of tending bar, and removed herself to New Mexico. She finds herself at Rico Garcia’s auto shop, and asked if he would teach her. What follows this seemingly random meeting is anything but random, as Ms. Mars takes us through its wake, full of searching, full of hope and fear, and eventually redemption.

 Margaret was effectively orphaned as a little girl when her parents traveled to India and wound up in prison.  Ever since, she has kept herself wrapped tightly against the world, fearing further loss.  She seeks Rico’s instruction, and finds a bit more. Not too much more, but the two become friends amid some fairly strong attraction. Rico’s own history has its rocky patches, not quite on the scale of Margaret’s, but they push him toward the gringa with a fair amount of force.

It isn’t very often that I’m moved to tears at the end of a book, but this one definitely did it for me. Ms. Mars has crafted a fine and satisfying conclusion – actually I wish it had a little more, but understand its construction and intent, and accept it. Well, “accept” is far too passive a term for my feeling about this book and its conclusion. It’s a compulsive page-turner with sympathetic characters and tense, carefully-balanced plot; I embrace it and the plainspoken truths about how rust accumulates on its characters’ hearts and emotions. A superior piece of storytelling, this novel will pull you along with its tone, its perfect pace, and its emotional truth. As satisfying as its payoff is, you will assuredly enjoy the journey just as much. Look for it in February 2012, and pounce!

"The Uninnocent" by Bradford Morrow

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According to the first-person narrator of “Tsunami,” “But we can’t ever really understand just how dark people’s hearts truly are, how mysterious.” Truer words are never spoken in this stunning and affecting collection of short pieces, which feature betrayal, larceny, abuse, madness, and murder in roughly equal parts.

Bradford Morrow (rhymes with sorrow) makes no attempt to plumb the depths of these characters’ psyches, other than to portray their actions and emotions. There is a sad and frightening logic to the goings-on here. His plots and portraits are so compelling: we understand the young collector in the initial story, “The Hoarder,” when he kills his brother. After all, it’s self-defense, but why must he stalk the girlfriend and photograph her in secret? I was left fearing for the girl’s life at the end. We watch in horror as the psychotically misguided protagonist of “(Mis)Laid” mislays his mind, takes his lover hostage, and just as quickly loses his life to a bullet through the brain from a high-powered rifle.  But Mr. Morrow, author of the resplendent “The Diviner’s Tale,” achieves his best effects when transcribing the inner dialogs of some of these truly sick puppies.

We follow and comprehend the twisted mental process of the mother who kills her husband in “Tsunami” – sort of – but the murder of her children in the bathtub is the only thing that fully explains the depth of her madness. In “Ellie’s Idea,” one story I found to be a little more comic, a young woman may have caused her dodgy husband some real difficulties when she calls his boss to apologize for a months-old slight. She certainly doesn’t smooth the waters of her family relationships, either. “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill” tells a marvelous old-fashioned sci-fi story, but has its own murder. Or does it? This one story features a rather upstanding and well-adjusted hero, but we’re given reason to doubt even this young man’s sanity. 

Other stories contain other outrages, other macabre goings-on. Mr. Morrow achieves a fugue-like state in which we expect to be wowed by his dark inventiveness, and we are never disappointed. His stories all share a marvelous deadpan delivery of deadly effects – I recommend them very highly.

“The Matchmaker of Périgord” by Julia Stuart

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Sweet and charming, “The Matchmaker of Périgord” is the award-winning confection which regales its lucky readers with the highly risible antics of the residents of Amour-sur-Belle, a small village in the Dordogne, in southwest France. Guillaume Ladoucette has graduated with distinction from barbers’ school, and in his career he did beautiful work with short hair on the sides and back. But changes in tonsorial tastes reach even rural French villages, along with the rampant tendency to baldness, and eventually Guillaume must find another trade.

Famous mini-tornadoes bookend the narrative: the first occurred in 1999 and caused such a furor of misunderstanding and discord between all the established couples, that Guillaume sees his opportunity – he becomes a matchmaker. The broad silliness that results from his efforts comprises an important delight here; he fails where he wants to succeed and he succeeds where he wants to fail. The one overriding consideration for us and Guillaume is the return to the village of Émilie Fraisse, after her loveless marriage ends. It turns out Guillaume loves her, first, last, and always. The second tornado threatens lives and property at the end of the story, but seems to rearrange things more to everyone’s satisfaction.

The style of “Matchmaker” honors and commemorates the timeless rural pace of a tiny French village. It does so in such a dry and witty way that it lulls us into a happy, amused, delighted state that we consume this entire story smiling, and when we’re not smiling, we’re laughing out loud. This is a very sweet, even tender, story in which the characters have hilarious foibles, and the outcome is never assured. Lighten your load. Visit Amour-sur-Belle with Guillaume, Émilie, and the rest of the quirky cast of “The Matchmaker of Périgord.” And see if you don’t start wishing you could live there with its gastronomic delights (this is France, after all) and its rocky road to love.