Esther Stories
 by Peter Orner

Mariner Books 2001, Paperback
First collection
winner,  Samuel Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction, New York Times Notable Book, finalist  PEN/ Hemingway Award

Peter Orner was born in Chicago and is the author of the novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and the story collection, Esther Stories. A book of oral histories, edited by Orner, Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, was published in 2008 by McSweeneys for the Voice of Witness Series.

Read an interview with Peter Orner

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"But their sleep will not be peaceful, because in it they will leave each other. And before dawn they will wake up tired in the flood of lamplight, and for too many moments they will be wretched and wonder why silently, without telling the other, because they won't understand, because they're too young to understand, because it takes years to understand... why the mornings will always be harder than the nights."

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

It might seem as though, having reviewed so many collections now, (see the lengthy list at the bottom of the page) I would have a clear idea of what I like to read. However, reading this collection, it struck me that I can no longer describe my taste simply and concisely. I have read so many excellent story collections - and this is simply the latest to delight me - that I no longer know how to quantify what I like. My eyes have been opened to all that a short story can be. All I can say is: this I love and this is also love.

To risk alienating those of you who don't watch British TV, Peter Orner's sharp and glowing Esther Stories are Tardis-like: just as Doctor Who's police-box spacecraft appears small from the outside and is cavernous within, so these stories, often only several pages, contain depths and layers far larger than the sum of their words. While all great "flash fiction" conveys far more than its brevity implies, Orner does something different, something quieter and more resonant. How he does it may remain as great a mystery as the inner workings of the Doctor's time machine.

The thirty-four stories are divided into four sections: "What Remains", "The Famous", "Fall River Marriage" and "The Waters".  The final two sections contain linked stories about two sets of Jewish families.

The first story
, Initials Etched on a Dining-Room Table, Lockeport, Nova Scotia is an excellent choice, a showcase for all Orner's particular talents. Very short, two and a half pages, yet it encompasses a far, far longer story. With a strong sense of time and history, illustrating precisely why it begins the "What Remains" section, it moves smoothly from one person's story into another, and ties everything together powerfully and unexpectedly with a pitch-perfect ending. This is what Peter Orner's stories do.

"The girl was young when she did it, and didn't live there." An enigmatic first line to draw you into the story - and, in fact, the whole book. An opening line which carries on from the title, as if the two were not separated. So, the first paragraph is the girl, and what she did, and when and how: "1962. She was eighteen. She had been hired to tidy the place". But it is not the girl we focus on, because then we move to: "when they put two and two together and figured out it was she who did it..." . Who are "they"?

The next paragraph, the second of only five in the whole story, introduces the cod fisherman "a captain, lived in the house with his wife". There are details which paint the broader picture and plant clues: the girl had a reputation, the couple have no children. The captain and his wife understand that the girl "wanted to leave her mark on the world".

There is a revelation at the end of the second paragraph; in the third the years go by, and only in the fourth paragraph do we hear the couple's voices, remembering the girl from so many years before. In the final paragraph, it all comes together, so surprisingly, and yet, on re-read, everything is there, beautifully and economically expressed:
"They both think of her. Sleep comes slowly. Now the captain coughs and twists. Age and too much time on land have made him restless, a man who was never restless, a man who had always slept the unmovable sleep of beached whales, now tossing and muttering, waking with sweat-wet hands, afraid".
I won't give away the ending, but just say that Orner captures human needs and fears, the difficulties of life with others and without them. He evokes such a strong sense of legacy and memory, both particular and universal. And all in two pages.

The other stories in this section similarly take you on a journey, beginning with one scenario and then seeing it from a different perspective, with years and relationships reverberating between the lines of Orner's quiet, precise prose. There are shocking incidents here - murder, rape, war, the death of a child, a husband - but none are looked at head-on. The landlord who does not know what to do with the clothes belonging to the now-deceased elderly tenant living above him who had been almost invisible; the lover who carries all the rooms she has ever stayed in around with her ("those rooms were, in a sense, her past"); the ex-soldier who remembers remembering seeing a girl swimming in a river.

The second set of stories, "The Famous", are more linearly told than the first set. Orner's writing might be called "traditional" in that he doesn't use flashy language, no quirky wordplay. And yet he is not a writer who plays it safe. Orner takes risks in every story because he demands - as all excellent writers do - that you accept a lack of information, that you read on without knowing exactly where, why, what and who. This is a risk because many readers won't read on, won't flow with the not-knowing. But to aim your stories at Everyreader will in most cases result in something less than the extremely high standard Orner sets here.

Some of these stories have quirkier concepts: the one-eyed pool player, the two Edgar Allen Poe impersonators in one small town, the woman convicted of trying to "off her husband" who falls in love with her female lawyer. While I enjoyed them, for the most part these stories impressed me less; I prefer those where the circumstances are apparently ordinary but under Orner's magnifying glass become devastating.

The final two sections of the book are mostly about these sorts of moments. The stories in "Fall River Marriage" dip into Sarah and Walter Kaplan's marriage at various points, from their courtship to Walter's death, not necessarily in that order. My favourite of these stories, Melba Kuperschmid Returns, which won Orner a Pushcart Prize, so deftly captures small town America of the 1950s (or so I assume, not having been there): Sarah's friend Melba, "the beautiful one" who had escaped the town, returns alone twenty-three years later. The local gossips conjure scenarious about her disgrace, but all is not so simple, of course:
"And Sarah stands mesmerized by the back of Melba's head. Her hair is pulled back tight in a plait; its end rests on her shoulder. Sarah looks at the exquisite column that forms that familiar neck. if she could freeze a moment in time, she'd freeze this one, the one before Melba turns round and sees her, because it isn't the new Melba she wants, it's the old one, the one who left here looking for something better."
Orner seems to be introducing the final set of stories, "The Waters", as semi-autobiographical, with the first line of the first story talking about "my grandfather and my father looking out at Lake Michigan". Whether this is entirely from Orner's imagination or from his family lore doesn't really matter, what matters is that they are snapshots which stand alone but which together form a moving portrait of family pain.

What Orner does here is perform a magic trick: the narrator is somehow able to be present in situations which predate his birth. He is there at his father's first sexual experience, and, in the brilliant two-page story My Father in an Elevator with Anita Fanska, August 1976 - which we doubt the narrator may even have been told about - watches his father make a critical choice. He moves into his grandfather's mind, where, in his later years, the war is still raging. And he tries to understand the story of his aunt, the Esther of the book's title: how and why did her tragedy shape the family?

In my opinion, Orner's stories could be used as near-perfect examples of how much a few words can convey. He is also a master at endings, never closing the story shut but wrapping up just enough to leave you satisfied.
There is so much more here to talk about, but by far the best thing is to get hold of this book and experience it for yourself.

Read a story from this collection in the Atlantic Unbound

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"
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