Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Swim Back to Me"

“Swim Back to Me” (Knopf, 2011) is a collection of short stories by Ann Packer, author of the well-received 2002 novel, “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.” That novel was riveting, and these stories are as well. These stories display even more complex, mature writing than the novel did. Every single story is not only compelling but also very real and very wise. The fact that the stories are set in Northern California, especially Palo Alto and Berkeley, is of course of interest to me, and the stories certainly draw on certain aspects of those locales. But really they transcend any certain setting. The longest story (actually a novella) is the first one, “Walk for Mankind,” narrated by a young, insecure boy, Richard, whose mother has just left his professor father and who has become enmeshed in an increasingly complicated and ambiguous friendship with Sasha, a girl who recently moved to his Palo Alto neighborhood, and with her friendly and welcoming but somewhat odd family. The story is beautifully observant and acutely painful in the way the world of early adolescence often is. The last story, “Things Said or Done,” unexpectedly returns some forty years later to the character Sasha and her family, showing us the reverberations of the personalities from, and the events set in motion in, the earlier story. The characters in all six stories are sharply drawn. Marriages and families are the focus in most of the stories. These stories are all heartbreaking, even tragic, in various ways, yet portray redemption, or at least the possibility of redemption, as well. As an aside: I recently heard the author interviewed on the radio, and was quite impressed by her, as I was by these emotionally engaging, insightful, beautifully written stories.

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