BY MIKE BEEMAN
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Readers familiar with Karen Joy Fowler most likely know her through her best selling novels, The Jane Austen Book Club, Wit’s End, and Sister Noon. But Fowler began her career as a writer of wildly imaginative short stories. Her newest collection is sure to add to this. What I Didn’t See is one of her strongest yet.
For some authors, a short story collections is like a science lab. The stories in this collection, published over a span of nearly two decades, show Fowler experimenting with many different styles and forms distinct from her novels. But no matter the genre or subject, the author retains what makes her full-length books so successful: an attention to detail, an ear for language, and compassion for her characters. For those who have found Fowler through her novels, these stories offer a chance to encounter an imaginative storyteller as she moves from subject to subject.
The stories in this collection are widely divergent. Next to a modern story of two sisters searching for a long-lost love in a small Italian village, you will find a fairy tale about a man with a wing for an arm. Beside the tale of an awkward adolescent friendship, Fowler takes us into a mid-century cult obsessed with immortality.
One of the pleasures of reading an eclectic collection is being constantly turned around and never knowing what to expect, but trusting the author to pull off the next story. Fowler does so brilliantly, whether chronicling a girl’s life in a brutal reform home or tying together a family history through the stewardship of a homemade submarine. Again and again, Fowler combines the mundane and the extraordinary to produce fiction as imaginative as it is relatable.
Many of Fowler’s stories are set in familiar periods of history: The title story concerns a woman who vanishes from a group of explorers hunting gorillas in the days of naturalists. Two stories tackle Lincoln’s assassination from different perspectives: Booth’s Ghost describes the life of Edwin Booth, older brother to John Wilkes, his life already tumultuous before his sibling assassinates Lincoln; in “Standing Room Only”, a young woman becomes obsessed with the young star as he passes through her boarding house. One of the oldest stories collected in this book, 1991’s “The Dark,” tells the tale of a feral child and his subsequent role in Vietnam.
Although the stories in this collection have been published widely, readers may be most familiar with “Private Grave 9,” which was included in McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. In the story, an archeologist falls in love with an Egyptian priestess, whose ghost may or may not be haunting him, compelling him to violence as he exhumes her tomb. While developing a picture of the priestess’s sarcophagus, he discovers a ghostly image of the woman’s face superimposed over the print. “A photograph is a moment you can spend your whole life looking at,” the narrator muses. This is Fowler at her best: unearthing a specific point in history, falling under its spell, and bringing the characters’ stories to life to offer a detailed snapshot of the past.