Saturday, November 29, 2008
The White Road and other stories by Tania Hershman – a review
For me, this book is unique. In Southern Africa it is uncommon to come across collections of short stories, especially in bookstores in Botswana, but I have yet to see a collection that mixes flash fiction among short stories. I cannot comprehend the aversion of publishers to short stories. One would think in this world of rampant ADD and time gobblers at all corners, short stories would be the exact package for fiction and flash fiction would be even better. When publishers in this part of the world will catch a wake up, I don’t know. The mixture between short stories and flash in The White Road is very nice.
A lot of hype has been made of the fact that some of the stories in The White Road are inspired by articles in the New Scientist magazine. Hershman is a former science journalist and has a strong science background, so finding stories in the collection stemming from that would not be unlikely, but my fear is that some might give the collection a pass, scared off by the science. Please don’t.
I think the better terminology, in this case, would be that the stories are sparked by science; the writer read a scientific article and from there her imagination got in the driver’s seat and drove the car to a place that, in almost all the stories, hardly holds a passing resemblance to the starting point. An example, the story ‘Self Raising’ was inspired by an article about coronal mass injections, basically the sun spitting. That’s the inspiration, but the story is about a woman who studied to be a scientist but was captured, as many women are, by marriage and children; her own dreams thrown to the side. She finds herself middle aged, baking cakes in the shapes of test tubes, Petri dishes, and the sun. The theme of the story is the taking back of her life, the science is incidental. This is how most of the science inspired stories are, so please, don’t be scared off.
The thing that stands out so startlingly about this collection is the ease in which Hershman approaches her stories. There is no tangled language that fights with the reader. She is not a flashy writer. She uses simple, strong, confidant language to walk with the reader through profound issues.
One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘Evie and the Arfids’. You start the story with a middle aged woman telling her own story in her own voice, husband gone, children gone; she’s drifting, struggling to find anything to cling to; a common identifiable story for many women. She gets a job and then a friend and you as the reader cheer for her. But that is not the story Hershman is telling; her story is a commentary on the abuse of technology, a terrifying ending waits for the reader. Simply written; slyly told. Hershman does not want to bash you over the head with a stick, but she still wants you to fall down.
Some of the flash fiction is quite exceptional. My favourite is ‘I am a Camera’ about a woman losing her memories. ‘Heavy Bones’ was a fun piece of flash. (Isn’t good flash such a delight? When will the publishing world wake up to that???)
I personally could relate to ‘Express’ which is about trying to learn another language when living in a land where you were not born, and the daily struggle with it and the subconscious relief when suddenly you are back in the land of your first language. Hershman lets the reader into that mental state in such a smooth-as-silk way. Very nice.
There are so many excellent stories in the 27 story collection. They often have humour mixed with an undertow of sadness, a good example is ‘The Incredible Exploding Victor’ about a boy who believes he will one day explode because his sad, sad mother keeps forcing food on him and ‘You’ll Know’ about the odd prescriptions often demanded of people wanting to adopt foreign babies.
There are a few editing slip-ups that distracted me since I thought UK publishers would do better. In a way, perhaps it made me feel better about our local publishers in an ‘even the big guys make mistakes’ way. I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of stories set in Hershman’s adopted home, Jerusalem. I would think stories abound there; my hope is that her next collection will take that into consideration. On the other hand, as a person who also lives in a place that she was not born, I am aware that stories come from where stories come and, if we are to be true to ourselves, we must write them. Pushing a story to fit where it doesn’t, never works. Hershman’s Israeli stories will find their way out when the time is right.
So folks, read the book, and then send me questions for the author because on the 29th of December, Tania Hershman will be stopping by Thoughts from Botswana on a stop during her blog book tour. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.