There’s something wondrous about a short story. Nearly primeval. Reminiscent, no doubt, of bedtime stories. No parent I knew ever read a novel aloud to put a child to sleep. Sure, A Tale of Two Cities can in fact put a toddler to sleep. The reader too. But no. I’m talking about the beauty inherent in a short story. Arguably a purer form of prose. Progression, perhaps along a continuum, like culinary endeavours, reducing a fine sauce invariably makes it better. Richer. More impactful. Assuming of course, it’s done well.
Which Barbara Black does—exceptionally well—in her collection of short stories, Music from a Strange Planet. The short story genre has always made for a desirable read, from the days of fireside stories to concise easy reads for commuters. Not easy as in simple, but concise. More often than not quite the opposite of simple. Brilliance often shines brightest from brevity. With a hook. This, for example, from Mastering Surface Tension, the opening story in Black’s collection:
“Grace continued to pour forth reasons for abandoning him. But her voice started to feel prickly, different than it was in the past, like tiny barbs puncturing his abdomen. The longer she spoke, the less he could understand. Her words became sound-wave shapes, percussive vocalizations, swirling moans, like a floor polisher making its way down a long, narrowing hallway.”
While this passage from The Vigil again does much more than merely introduce an apparent protagonist:
“He had come after work, as he always had for the last nine years, to see his aging mother. Except that this time it was urgent. The staff admired Gerald. They called him “The Golden Boy” even though he was neither a boy nor golden. He was a clerk in an auto parts wholesaler. They thought his filial diligence was an act of love.”
“They thought …” They thought. And like that, I’m hooked, needing to know just what it is that actually motivated this man, this un-golden Golden Boy.
No, not simple. Far from it, in fact. But concise. Innovative stories, told and written well. I applaud multimedia artist, musician and author Barbara Black, her strength as a writer shining in this collection of short stories. For a depth of engagement and content disproportionate to each tale’s length, Music from a Strange Planet delivers a fascinating, thought-provoking playlist.
About the Author
Barbara Black writes fiction, flash fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published in Canadian and international magazines including The Cincinnati Review, The New Quarterly, CV2, Geist and Prairie Fire. She was recently a finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, nominated for the 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2019 Geist Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. She lives in Victoria, BC.
- Title: Music from a Strange Planet: And Other Stories
- Author: Barbara Black
- Publisher: Caitlin Press Inc., Spring 2021
- ISBN: 9781773860589 (ARC)
- Pages: 200 pp
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