Friday, May 14, 2010
Book Review: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) [*****] In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you right up front that I pretty much think Robin Black hung the moon these days because, after meeting her very briefly in a book signing line at the Free Library where I heard her read from this collection recently, I contacted her (through Twitter, no less -- I have completely drunk the social media kool aid...), and she very, very generously (as though she had nothing else to do while on a busy book tour) put me in touch with the leader of her old writing group, of which I am now a very happy and grateful member. I'm pretty sure, though, that even if I were entirely objective, I would just love this collection of short stories. Black's writing is beautifully unadorned, without flourish; it doesn't show off, and it doesn't need to, because in not getting in the way (as I felt Mary Karr's lush metaphors did a bit in Lit, a memoir I otherwise loved), her language ends up being mesmerizing. It's as easy to get caught up in these stories as in a great novel, which is saying a lot coming from someone who used to hate short stories because I thought of them as "failed novels." I no longer feel that way about short stories in general, but I still think it's a very rare thing for a short story to capture a world as thoroughly, to realize a character as fully, as Black can in ten or twenty pages. She also has an uncanny ability to write about very peculiar characters and circumstances --- a father and his blind, college-aged daughter picking up her first seeing eye dog; a eerie, prim school girl at a hippy Quaker school who was kidnapped for ransom as a young child living in Italy and is now bent on revenge; a woman whose child is almost electrocuted by faulty wiring at almost the same moment that the woman's mentally ill father steps in front of a train -- and yet it all seems completely plausible, quotidian even. I think that is one of the things I like best about these stories, the way they play with the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction" -- this is fiction that compellingly and convincingly draws us into the truth of the strangeness of life. What I love most about these stories, though, is the clear-eyed sympathy Black brings to her characters, for the most part unremarkable men and women in middle age or older, experiencing losses or transitions -- there is a lot of death, divorce, infidelity, and illness in the worlds of these stories. In many cases it would have been easy to cast villains or victims -- especially victims -- but Black is both unblinking and kind, and thus creates characters who are nuanced and real. Black helps us know not only them, but ourselves through them. This is the quality I love most in my very favorite writer of all time, George Eliot, and I have often said that if I am to be judged for my own foibles and self-delusions, I hope it will be by someone as clear-eyed and sympathetic as Eliot. I would now gladly add Robin Black to my jury pool.