Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

"Homeland and other stories" by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperPerennial, 1989)

Themes thread through the stories which are each about 20 pages long - women worrying about relationships; people's place in the world (and in the world of rocks, plants and animals); male vs female perspectives; parenting or deciding to be parents; furniture makers; ex-hippies. Gender politics too -

  • in "Why I am a danger to the public" a woman's doing "a man's job"
  • in "Jump-Up Day" the main character says that she's a boy.
  • in "Rose-Johnny", a girl comes to admire a women who "was not, as we always heard, half man and half woman ... there was something not quite womanly in her face, but maybe any woman's face would look the same with that haircut" (p.204). Later in the same story "I knew, in a manner that went beyond the meaning of words I could not understand, that she was no more masculine than my mother or aunt, and no more lesbian than Lebanese. Rose-Johnny was simply herself, and alone" (p.218)

The latter quote shows how she sometimes "tells" rather than "shows", which is fair enough. Else when too, her characters seem more insightful and expressive than you'd expect - "I squeezed her hand to bring some strength into mine. I thought of the previous afternoon, of watching her, beautiful and permanent, against the continual loss of the Eel River. The things we will allow ourselves to believe" (p.59).

Her symbolism seems at times heavy-handed (or tightly coordinated, depending on how you view it) -

  • A bridge, designed and built by the main character's partner to be nature-friendly, is destroying by nature. Their relationship is in trouble. At the end of the story "she climbs and slides down the slick boulders of the creek bed opposite him. She can't get any closer because of the water, still running high after the flood. "Whitman!" She screams his and other things, she can't remember what. She had hardly hear her own voice over the roar of the water. When he does look up she sees that he isn't hurt. He says something she can't hear. It takes awhile for Lydia to understand that he's crying. Whitman is not dead, he's crying. "God, I thought you were dead," she yells, her hand on her chest, still catching her breath" (p.40)
  • In a story where the main character's father died because of infected water, the character sees a snake while she's cycling. Later, "On the deserted banana plantation the long drainage ditches, channels of infected water, shone like an army of luminous snakes marching toward the sea" (p.195). Snakes marching?

I like the details she keeps adding to sentences - e.g. "Mother made bologna sandwiches and we ate lunch in a place called Cherokee Park. It was a shaded spot along the river, where the dry banks were worn bald of their grass. Sycamore trees grew at the water's edge, with colorful, waterlogged trash floating in circles in the eddies around their roots" (p.18). Each story has sufficient description, characters, theme and sometimes plot to keep me reading.

Other reviews

  • Russell Banks, New York Times (Of the 12 stories in this first collection by the author of the widely praised novel "The Bean Trees," all are interesting and most are extraordinarily fine)
  • Kirkus (Kingsolver's stories are so sharply defined and deftly constructed that their lackluster endings come as a disappointment--they don't support all the talent that the stories contain. No crescendos here, then, but, still, a lovely repertoire)
  • My reading life
  • Laura Furman, LA Times (Kingsolver is most generous to her women and children, giving men more shallow characterizations. The men are annoying or ineffectual, problems for the women to solve. But all the children, male and female, are understandable and are magnets for the warmth of the women. I had the happy feeling halfway through this solid, readable collection that here is a writer who is telling us about characters in the middle of their days ...)

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