What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler

21st Oct 2010

What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler

Long before Karen Joy Fowler attracted international renown with her 2004 novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, she was crafting short stories. Her latest collection, What I Didn’t See, is a compilation primarily composed of previous works with one new story. And while no-one would ever accuse Fowler of being a chick-lit author, What I Didn’t See is a far cry from the drama of the personal lives of her Book Club characters. The stories deal with violence real and suggested, and are primarily left unresolved, and the reader is left with anything from an uncertainty of the characters’ fates to a sense of foreboding.

While some of Fowler’s work would be classified as science fiction – in fact, several stories have been published in science fiction magazines – it is not science fiction as we know it, but more vaguely supernatural. Many of the surreal scenarios can be chalked up to misgivings of the human psyche, and it is the questionable interpretations on the part of the characters and the readers that make the stories more chilling than alien sightings or android invasions. Even Fowler’s one outright piece of fantasy, Halfway People, features a narrator comforting herself with a story meant for a sleeping infant.

The one new story in the collection, Booth’s Ghost, is one of two stories featuring an alternate perspective on the assassination of American Civil War president Abraham Lincoln. For an audience that did not grow up hearing about Mr Lincoln’s goodness, these tales surrounding his death may drag a bit.

Half of their fascination is that the story of the Civil War and Lincoln has been ingrained into the consciousness of Americans from a very young age. But we never dwell very long on those related to assassin Wilkes Booth or how they might have been affected by his actions, and the stories of their struggles are refreshing.

Fowler’s tone conveys a sincerity that couldn’t possibly sugar coat any scenario. Sometimes bluntly relating facts can have a greater emotional impact than any detailed description. Dryly describing hand-to-hand combat in Viet Cong tunnels or the first sign of free-spirited grandmother’s Alzheimer’s is jarring to the reader because of the author’s detachment.

The practicality of her views is what makes them upsetting, a reminder how tragedies great and small affect people everyday even if we aren’t privy to them. And that is where Fowler succeeds — even if her brutal boarding houses or Congolese misadventures aren’t real to us, post-traumatic stress disorder is. All of her narrators are survivors, and they tell their stories in blunt, practical ways we imagine they need to protect themselves.

What I Didn’t See and Other Stories was published this month by Small Beer Press. It can be yours in hardback for £15.13, from Amazon.

Post by Amanda Farah