A couple of years ago, I read The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards first novel. The book was somber, bordering on depressing, but I really liked it. Edwards did an excellent job of developing her characters throughout the novel. So when I saw that Edwards has published a book of short stories I quickly grabbed it up.
The stories in this collection focus on the people at the edge of societies, people living on the fringe: the woman who rents lodgings to Madame Curie, the Korean woman who marries a GI and moves to Pennsylvania, the girl who reluctantly travels with her mother who is a leader in the anti-abortion movement. My favorite stories were the ones that flirted with the supernatural. 'In the Garden' is the story of a young man and woman who routinely drink what they believe to be an elixir of life, a potion that will enable them to cheat death, only to find out that the potion has nearly the exact opposite effect, hastening them towards the day that their bodies cease to work. 'Thirst' is the story of a mermaid who chose to leave her life "unda da sea" so that she could live out her days with a man. They have children and a life together, but her insatiable desire for the sea threatens the world they have constructed. 'The Secrets of a Fire King' was probably my favorite story. It was told from the perspective of Jasper, a 19th century fire eater who travels with a group of performers. In a small rural town -- the arena of choice for the troupe -- he falls in love with a young girl by the name of Jubilee. Her brother is enraptured with Jasper's apparent mastery of fire, and Jasper, in order to spend time with Jubilee, agrees to take him on as an apprentice. It quickly becomes clear that the young man has some issues, and he is none too happy when he finds out Jasper's intentions when it come to Jubilee. The characters are riveting, and the plot is taut and full of religious undertones.
Like Edward P. Jones, Edwards has a knack for developing her characters and stories in such a way that it is easy to forget that they are short stories. On numerous occasions, I have found myself slogging through a novel that is just simply too bloated, unnecessarily long. So it is refreshing to read excellently crafted stories that are around forty pages in length. Alas, brevity is not easy.