Thursday, December 8, 2016

"The Jungle Around Us: Stories," by Anne Raeff

“The Jungle Around Us” (University of Georgia Press, 2016), a recently published collection of stories by Anne Raeff, is the most recent winner of the annual Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the award is well deserved. On 3/2/11, I posted here about Raeff’s astonishing and powerful novel, “Clara Mondeschein’s Melancholia”; I am thrilled that we now have this new book by her. These stories are dazzling! Not dazzling in terms of showy or extravagant, but in terms of being compelling, beautifully written, and displaying absolute control of the material. The stories are international, with various settings in Europe, South America, North America, and Asia. They unapologetically (but not didactically) engage with some of the fearsome events of the past few decades, and how people affected by those events dealt and deal with them. As in Raeff’s earlier book, a constant presence is the memory of World War II and especially of those who were killed in, or escaped from, Europe because of being Jewish. Many escaped first to South America and then to the United States, and here we read about some of the families that did so, being displaced and starting new lives not once but twice. They were torn between being grateful to escape, on the one hand, and having the horrors of the war and displacement hang over them (and their children) their whole lives. In a few cases, characters from one story show up in another, and the reader benefits from these interconnections. The stories are filled with refugees, exiles, separation, uprooting, grief, memory, trauma, and psychological breakdowns, and we are reminded, with great clarity and force, how these are the conditions of life in our modern world. It is good for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to face personally or immediately the kinds of wrenching tragedies and displacements to be reminded of this, and Raeff reminds us in a persistent and effective manner. But besides these powerful reminders, or I should say intertwined with them, Raeff offers us full, rich characters experiencing their lives, going on, getting on with it, so to speak. In fact, the book could be described (although it would be highly reductionist to do so) as an illustration of the interactions between two clich├ęd but true sayings: “Life goes on” (somehow) and “Never forget.” Highly recommended.
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