Thursday, 25 July 2019
Review by Alan McCormick of "Some of us glow more than others" by Tania Hershman
Tania Hershman casts mysterious and magical spells in her latest collection of short stories and flash fiction. She somehow manages to be forensic yet lyrical, playful yet profound, disturbing yet compassionate. Her scope is daring, unique and revelatory, investigative and sharp; continuously, entertainingly experimenting with ideas and with words; searching for meanings in stories about religion, science and love (nearly always love); the alchemy of life examined in startling ways, robots and octopi, the human spirit tested but winning through. It’s a beautiful book.
Like all truly original ambitious books that I’ve loved and savoured, there are some parts I don’t get or respond to – I think of writers like Dostoyevsky and Joyce that I consumed too quickly in my teens, whose books were so wondrous that it felt okay to skim over certain passages. Here there are occasional very short stories that don’t quite touch me, their meaning too slight or obtuse, frustratingly out of reach. But when Hershman’s experimentation is wedded to character and emotion, as it nearly always is, reading becomes a thrilling experience. The rogue scientific nun, Emmylene in ‘God Glows,’ who happens on the essence of love through her tests on other nuns’ blood, is a character who will long stay in the memory.
There are several near-future dystopian stories – the domestic servant disconsolately apart from her land replacing a discarded robot in ‘Something Like a Tree,’ tending the grandmother of the house, who is slowly dying, so 'when she tries to breathe there is a dark deep knocking from inside as if something wants to leave.' In ‘The Special Advisor,’ there is the chillingly mundane world of dumbed-down subservience at work – following orders in a shadowy totalitarian state, bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s observation about the ‘banality of evil’ – its central character employed to witness and advise on an array of inexplicable executions. Written in the second person to heighten the sense of existential dread, the witness/advisor is disturbed but doesn’t know what to do, a way out offered near the end by the predecessor in the post, who simply says ‘you don’t have to.’
If the flash shorts can sometimes seem oblique, they can also be spellbinding and moving. In ‘A Song for Falling’ a woman starts by composing songs for standing, and for sitting. After life engulfs her and the songs dry up, at last a single note appears, ‘a small small song ... for breathing, for taking the next breath ... a song for how to live now that you know what life can do to you.’ In another beautifully spare story, Carly, ‘a lonely child,’ ‘seems to have more of everything, more features than usual, diffused, extra, spare. And yet there is not enough of her. Not enough of her to make her way in the world.’
I found myself thinking of Barthelme, Borges and Lydia Davis in the wit, brevity and range of the stories, of Atwood in the disturbing science fictions, but Tania Hershman’s voice and vision is all her own. It’s a book I’ll enjoy giving to friends, for them to savour, to have their senses ignited, to be in thrall to.
About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives with his family on the Dorset coast. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for the charity, InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including Salt’s Best British Short Stories and Confingo. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. See more at www.dogsbodiesandscumsters.wordpress.com.