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Alexandria Liston

A Wide-Ranging, Dazzling Debut: ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer Among the StarsSwimmer Among the Stars, (256 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Kanishk Tharoor’s first collection of stories, centers on concepts of language, conquest, and our ever-changing position on this planet. Born in Singapore and raised in Geneva, Tharoor touches on the imagined personalities of several countries and cultures— ruminating on the complex ways in which strangers cooperate and learn from one another, even on the brink of warfare. Often focusing on the strong polarities, and in turn, similarities of differing cultures, Tharoor is meticulous in illustrating the realistic yet otherworldly on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.

Setting his thirteen stories in land, space, and sea, and roaming in time from as early as 190 B.C. to a post-apocalyptic future, Tharoor asks us to conceptualize the relationship between past and present by treating time and language as near characters of their own. Reminiscent of the magical realism of Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami, Swimmer Among the Stars collectively capitalizes on the often unexplainable, enchanting feelings and interactions brought on by strong cultural identities and superb storytelling.

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Without a Place in the Orphanage: ‘Such Small Hands’ by Andrés Barba

612yB1t2-LLIn Such Small Hands (108 pages, Transit Books), the new novel by acclaimed Spanish author Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman), childhood abandonment and trauma are examined through the abnormal, ritualistic behaviors of Marina, a seven-year-old girl turned orphan. Following the unexpected deaths of her parents, Marina loses any control she once had over language and emotion. Placed in an entirely unfamiliar world, filled with cartoonish, seemingly identical little girls, Marina grapples with her black-sheep identity as she confronts complicated, and at times, horrific decisions that eventually lead to drastic consequences.

Loosely based on a brutal event that took place in 1960s Brazil, Barba’s twelfth book creates a narrative similar to other bildungsroman such as Oliver Twist and even Pan’s Labyrinth, maintaining a lyrically rich and devastating portrayal of adolescent struggle. Caught between the bookends of trauma, Marina finds herself in limbo as she fails to both perform and to cope with her emotions effectively.

Switching between a collective first person, gang-like perspective of the orphans and a third-person perspective for Marina, a deep sense of longing and tension is formed between the two voices. Despite hopes of finding friendship with her comrades, Marina and her peculiar behavior create a barrier of jealousy and anger that poisons the entire orphanage and ultimately leads to violence.

Meditating on desire and loneliness in an otherwise cold and de-sexualized world, Barba compares Marina to an imprisoned zoo animal. “Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to. An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.” Lingering every so often on ideas of physical touch and the young prepubescent body, the novel amplifies the importance of human contact in both a sweet and startling way.

Such Small Hands evokes a sensation similar to the horror of witnessing a child being dragged beneath a riptide. You want to help, scream, bury your face in your hands, but you also can’t fail to notice the poignant valor of an innocent life gasping for air, struggling against forces seemingly greater than us all.

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Bumbling Along, But Full of Heart: ‘Wait Till You See Me Dance’ by Deb Olin Unferth

Wait Till You See Me DanceWait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, 186 pages) marks Deb Olin Unferth’s second collection of stories, following Minor Robberies (2007). The author of the novel Vacation and the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the Sandinistas, Unferth displays a smart and snappy application of the short-short form in this volume of 39 stories—29 of which are fewer than three pages long (and four of which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 108).

Wait Till You See Me Dance is filled with concise, meaningful sentiments that both entertain and engage the reader in commentary surrounding what it means to survive in today’s world. Touching on topics as varied as gun violence, the unpredictability of success, the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the not-so-complex ideas of privilege, Unferth gravitates toward an array of nuanced subjects.

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Meditating on Evil under Paradise’s Sun: ‘After the Blue Hour’ by John Rechy

After the Blue HourIn his new novel, After the Blue Hour (212 pages, Grove Press), John Rechy offers a hybrid erotica-mystery that he labels as “true fiction.” The author of seventeen books and praised by such great American writers as James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Gore Vidal, Rechy achieved literary fame with his first novel, the international bestseller City of Night, published in 1963. In his new novel, set in the ’60s, the narrator, a 24-year-old writer and ex-hustler also named John Rechy, receives an invitation to join an admiring fan, Paul Wagner, for the summer on his private island.

Upon arrival, John finds himself at a gorgeous yet strangely tense and mysterious paradise, alongside the extraordinarily rich and charismatic Paul, his soft-spoken mistress Sonja, and his relatively unstable 14-year-old son, Stanty. Here, in Gatsby-esque fashion, John spends each day in complete isolation with his new companions, sharing drinks, beliefs, and stories that come to reveal each character’s sense of moral depravity and grit.

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