Book review: Edith Pearlman's Honeydew - too many slices of life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 January, 2015, 11:31am

by Edith Pearlman
Little, Brown and Co

The human knee, as one of many science-filled conversations in Edith Pearlman's new book of stories reminds us, "was one of the most complicated joints in the body. Certainly it seemed loaded with ligaments, menisci, tendons, and cartilage. The whole apparatus looked untrustworthy, Acelle told Joe. 'Interdependent,' he corrected."

The passage seems intended as an oblique defence of Pearlman's distinct and much-praised approach to the art of the short story. The piece in which it appears, Castle 4, is complicated, with a large number of moving parts brought together, somewhat precariously, in the service of a specialised function.

At least six characters fall in love over the course of its 20-odd pages, their romances linked to each other through the twin hubs of a Boston hospital where some of them work, and a housing development where most of them live. Many sick or wounded minor characters mingle with the principal figures, each exerting a potentially diversionary claim on the reader's attention.

Written in a brisk but highly coloured prose that swells into hyperbolic lushness whenever the opportunity arises, the story barrels along to its climactic explosions of goodness and niceness.

I hate to rain on anyone's parade, least of all an author who has waited until her 70s to get one (her last collection, Binocular Vision, won the National Book Critics Circle award in 2011), and I should say that it took me a while to realise I was seriously out of sympathy with these stories. What I noticed first was their self-evident skill and polish, their energy, their many arresting situations and images, and their undeniable originality. Pearlman stocks her tales with totemic objects and mythic archetypes (almost every one of them features a wounded healer of some kind, or a witchily wise old grandmother, or a trio of clever young princesses).

There is something of Gabriel García Márquez in the relish for quasi-magical props and scenery, something of Isaac Bashevis Singer's folkloric side in the stories of Jewish life, something of Angela Carter in the verbal ebullience and fairy-tale parallels, something of Flannery O'Connor in the urge to stage transformative encounters between prosperous white Americans and representatives of other cultures and classes.

But without the drag of observed reality, the stories float weightlessly into a cloying sweetness. Bad things happen, but they never seem fully believed in, and so the happiness bestowed on the characters who survive them feels unearned. These things are a matter of taste. No doubt there are readers who will find the stories irresistible.

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