Short stories aren’t always my favorite – collections can be so uneven sometimes; I’d rather spend time in a big long novel. But Margo Lanagan seems to be trying to convince me that I – even I! – can love a collection of short stories. Yellowcake is everything you’d expect – a generally strong collection of stories full of beautiful writing; disturbing images; colliding, twining themes. It’s s strong contender, although I’m not totally convinced it will take a medal in the end.
Let’s talk about what’s good here first. The language, of course (“Styx water is sharp and bites inside your nose.”): effective, unexpected, powerful. Her carefully crafted dialogue provides clues and insights into her characters (Gallantine’s very few, studiedly casual, deceptively mild lines gave me chills, for instance). Lanagan is an amazing writer, and she does her usual awesome job here, too.
Most of the stories are extremely successful: complex and memorable, whether they are based on something old (Night of the Firstlings is a retelling of Passover and Exodus; Ferryman plays with Charon and the River Styx) or are totally new (An Honest Day’s Work, Into the Clouds on High). An Honest Day’s Work and A Fine Magic are particularly distinguished. They both have a detailed, interesting background and showcase finely detailed characters. The horror elements in these stories are compelling – small details and images add up to a frightening whole. Into the Clouds on High is probably my favorite story from the collection; it’s equal parts heart breaking and mysterious, a powerful look at death, loss, and grieving. (I don’t think that’s because I was excessively pregnant when I read it, either; this past summer was hormonally challenging, so maybe take that last assessment with a grain of salt.)
The stories play off each other in interesting ways, and they work together to create a strong impact. She examines the individual, the family unit, and entire communities throughout the stories with subtlety and smarts. An Honest Day’s Work focuses tightly on Amarlis, a narrator who finds work despite having a handicap. As he works as a team onlooker, supervising a group of people, the story grows in scope to examine the community that must scavenge from the sea (it’s an awesome read, a mash up of ship breaking and whaling, with strong characterization). Night of the Firstlings, too, telescopes from individuals to the family unit, to the wider community. As we move through the levels, the narrator never loses his voice and the family feels like a real family. Once the larger community takes to the road, the reader feels connected to it, to all the individuals who make it up.
So why am I not confidently calling this a medal-worthy title? There are no major problems, although a couple of the stories are not as strong as this rest. The Point of Roses is a little long and murky; although I suspect it improves on reread, all of the elements don’t quite gel on the first read through. The Golden Shroud might be the weakest of the bunch. It’s suspenseful and quite romantic, but doesn’t really bring much new to the telling of Rapunzel.
These smaller criticisms could function as an excuse to dismiss Yellowcake. Reading Lanagan is an intellectual experience. While the language and images in her work can punch a reader in the gut, they don’t always hit the heart in the same way. And, as we’ve said before, short story collections can be tricky to assess at an award table. I could be wrong (I’d love to be wrong), but at most I’d call this for a silver medal. What do you guys think?