Short story collections sit alongside my other books on the shelves in my room – they have their special place so that I can go straight to them and pick them up whenever I feel like a short story, something to read in between. In between of what you ask? Well, in between two novels, or in between my writing when I don’t want to be distracted by a long novel, or in between going to bed and falling asleep, or in between going from one place to another on the train or in an airport lounge… You’ve guessed it, I don’t usually read a collection from page one to the end, but I just pick up an odd story here or there. I have my favourites of course, some stories stick out and you remember them months and years later, even if you have forgotten whole novels that you read from beginning to end. Sometimes I wake up thinking of the story I read the night before and the mood of the story lingers, at other times they disappear without a trace. I love them nevertheless, these stories that are well crafted and open up your eyes to different worlds. And of course, even if short story collections are a hard sell on the whole, as they tend not to be read as widely as novels are, some writers are recognised for their skills of writing perfect short stories, think of Jhumpa Lahiri, Ali Smith and Alice Munroe, to name but a few.
Some six months ago now Jimmy Olsen, the author of The Hero of Blind Pig Island and Other Island Stories approached me and asked if I would read and review his collection. I agreed but with the health warning that it would be a while as (a) I was trying to finish my own book and (b) there were a number of other books that I intended to read (think Booker Prize shortlist and others). In addition, I should have added that I tend not to read a short story collection in one sitting, but rather take my time. I will also give an honest review, which I will place on Goodreads and on the Amazon website as well as on my blog.
According to his author page Jimmy Olsen is a bit of an adventurer, a diver, a teacher of English and various other things and has lived in the Dominican Republic where, for a while, he taught English at a private American school. These stories reflect his experience and are all set in the Caribbean; they convey some of its unique atmosphere and the environment of living as a foreigner in a hot country with quite a different culture from that of your own. The stories are about teachers and divers as well as some of the inhabitants who are viewed from the perspective of an outsider. They are quite unique stories, well written and a pleasure to read. One story that stuck out for me is the story of Denise who as a young girl at a diving school is scared of diving but who perseveres and overcomes her fear and becomes an expert professional diver. I loved the way the narrator elicits the diving experiences, the fear and the beauty of under water life and then the ultimate tragic end. A story about going back to the Caribbean and experiencing a hurricane is equally well written, Hurricane Georges Journal.
I should add that one of the stories is less attractive and I was not sure whether it was meant to be funny, conveying a sense of misplaced comedy, or whether the author intended to convey the dark side of the narrator, who comes across as a real prig. Party Girl is about a new teacher, a girl, who is fed so much alcohol that the narrator’s wife has to stand guard against potential rapist colleagues. I felt slightly uneasy reading this and thought it was a pity that this was the very first story in the book especially as all subsequent stories are good reads, for example Reservado, in which a woman goes in search of her past and Sea Salt in which a boy, who lives with his grandparents, is fishing with his grandfather when they see a boat crash in the shallows on the shore.
If you like short stories as I do, then this could definitely be one to add to your collection. The stories are short and readable so that for newcomers to reading short stories this is as good a place to start as any.