What I Didn't See
 by Karen Joy Fowler

Small Beer Press
Second Collection

Awards: Winner, Best Collection, 2011 World Fantasy Awards; The Pelican Bar, from this collection won the 2010 World Fantasy Award for short story. 

"When men are turned into animals, it’s hard for them to find their way back to themselves. When children are turned into animals, there’s no self to find. There’s never been a feral child who found his way out of the dark. Maybe there’s never been a feral child who wanted to. "

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

This collection was gripping from the start. The opening story, The Pelican Bar, has a sassy teenage character Norah. She is defiant, difficult and perhaps like many teenagers we know. Only this is not a typical story of adolescence. Norah is taken away to a sadistic boot camp and the norms of expected society are skewed and pushed to the extreme. It’s a compelling read, shocking and gratuitously detailed.

Many of Karen Fowler’s stories take us into such dark places, whether they are buried in war tunnels in Vietnam or in the darkness of a fairy tale. They contain abductions, abuses, assassination, cults, and war. At times they are magical or surreal, but the writer grounds her stories in such vivid physical details ("skin rashes, eye infections, aching teeth, constant hunger, stomach cramps") that they feel all too real. And the feelings of paranoia, jealousy, humiliation, love, fear are so ingrained into the characters of these stories that they seep into the reader.

Every story reaches its mark. There are moments, perhaps where a reader might feel unsure where a story is going, or feel a little lost. But, always, we are brought around. By the end all momentary doubts are transgressed as we realize, this writer knew where she was taking us all along.

There are two stories that concern Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The first is from the perspective of the John Wilkes Booth’s family and is beautifully written. Fowler writes gripping historical stories that bring us intimately close to the times and geographies of her characters. The second is from the perspective of a girl whose mother owned the boarding house from which the assassination was planned and executed. It is a very different perspective on the event, and brings us a subjective view of a girl in love with the man who killed him.

All stories in the collection are powerful, but The Dark stayed with this reviewer for a particularly long time. It opens with a series of seemingly unconnected strange incidents occurring years apart in Yosemite. Then we follow Keith, who is researching bubonic plague and we are taken to different parts of the world and times exploring pandemics. Finally we go to Vietnam where Keith is testing rats for bubonic plague in tunnels. The narrative skips around and our imagination bridges the gaps between the different places and people, until we become infected with Keith’s paranoia about the wild boy in Yosemite, and Victor the strange "tunnel rat" in Vietnam. It’s an energetic story that fires all our synapses and leaves questions that left this reviewer wanting to immediately read the story again.

There are no obvious stories in this collection. All of them take unexpected trajectories. They are collectively witty, quirky, strange, beautiful, disturbing, mythical, original, and authentic. We can follow the decline of a grandma with Alzheimer’s in the same book as witnessing a gorilla hunt in the Congo. Rather than take a theme, or an overall narrative arc, or focus on a certain part of the world, these stories take in diverse subject matter and geographies. This means we are can never be sure where we are or what each page might bring. This is eclectic approach to a collection is exciting, and steers us away from the safer approach that many other collections take.

Read a story by this author in Asimovs

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems  Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Litmus and Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone and This Road We’re On (Flax Books), Transmission, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, and Pank magazine.
Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

Ailsa Cox "The Real Louise"
Mary Gaitskill "Don't Cry"

Lori Ostlund The Bigness of the World"

"The House of Your Dream"

Ethel Rohan "Cut Through The Bone"

Alex Epstein "Blue Has No South"

Susannah Rickards "Hot Kitchen Snow"

Gay Degani "Pomegranate Stories"
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Karen Joy Fowler is the author of five novels, including The Jane Austen Book Club. Her novel Sister Noon was a finalist for the 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and her short story collection Black Glass won the World Fantasy Award. She lives in Santa Cruz California.

Read an interview with Karen Joy Fowler