Short Dark Oracles
by Sara levine

First Collection

"In place of my feelings, substitute the emptiness of a rain barrel, its wood drying out, its metal staves creaking, an arid silence after two years of learning to hold the rain."

Reviewed by Emma Young

Sara Levine's collection of short stories, or Short Dark Oracles, as the title illustrates, is a powerful, magical and yet unsettling at times compilation of stories that on the one hand depict a range of issues and varying situations whilst simultaneously coming together to provide a sense of unity, as motifs relating to spirituality and darkness permeate the entirety of the collection.

What was particularly enjoyable about the collection as a whole was the way in which Levine challenges both the structure and content of the short story form and is not afraid to play with the elasticity and breadth of the genre. As Levine states herself in the brief bio on her website:
I am a big fan of a certain kind of littleness: essays the size of handkerchiefs, novels the length of nosebleeds, philosophies reduced to paragraphs, conclusions detached from tedious arguments, epics scribbled on the back of a hand, tall tales, but only in bare feet.
The short stories in this collection epitomize the playful and experimental approach Levine takes to literature. From the opening story Oracle which is less than 200 words, or one whole page, and blurs the boundaries between the everyday, imagination and psychic powers, through to The Following Fifteen Things which deconstructs the story in to fifteen short segments which form the larger whole, she is not afraid to experiment and mold the short story structure in to something new and alive.

This playfulness with form is also reflected in the content and themes of the stories as the everyday is depicted as so easily becoming monstrous such as in Must We Stoop For Violets in the Hedge?: "Walking down the street with it, I studied the hair’s unnatural undulations in my shadow as it loomed above me, spiny and monstrous". The protagonist’s new hair cut, which is clearly a disappointment, not only takes on negative connotations but transform in to a grotesque being in itself. In the everyday environment of walking down the street the image is malformed to create a distorted and gruesome being whose "undulations" and "shadows" are repulsive and threatening.

From the entire collection one of the most memorable stories is A Promise. On the one level the story appears to be preoccupied with the difficulties of life as a single working mum whose commute to her office job prohibits her spending more than 45 minutes with her daughter each morning. However, as the narrative develops there slowly emerge greater spirits and forces at work, as the mother begins to notice:
So it's a small thing, but I like that free train ride – three bucks it saves me - and maybe it's living with a two-year-old who asks why about every little thing, but I wonder why it happens. The conductor walks by as if he sees me and he doesn't care.
It is this question of "why?" which proceeds to drive the narrative on its dark and disturbing revelation about that two-year-old daughter. Levine humorously subverts the position in which the toddler asks the mother why as the mother herself now become preoccupied with the question. What begins as humorous and strange soon becomes dark and twisted and leads to one conclusion leaving the reader perplexed, disturbed yet at the same time impressed by the imagination and craft of the writer.

Levine's writing is compulsive, evocative and finely distilled. She creates wonderful images that are at the same time monstrous and saturated with a power to convey a multitude of possibilities to the reader. This is the work of a witty writer who is aware of the fragility yet darkness of life and has the ability to craft that in to a charming and alluring tale. I cannot wait to see what her next collection will offer!

Read a story from this collection in Necessary Fiction

Emma Young is a PhD student at the University of Leicester working on her thesis: Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Short Story Genre. Her work explores the implications of gender and genre by discussing the work of numerous contemporary British women authors including Ali Smith and Rose Tremain and considers the implications of new digital technology on the status and future of the short story. .
Emma's other Short Reviews: Lorrie Moore "Like Life"

Gemma Seltzer "Speak to Strangers"

"Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 4"
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Sara Levine studied English at Northwestern University and has a PhD from Brown University. She taught in the MFA in Nonfiction Writing program at the University of Iowa and is the chair of the Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has previously published a novel entitled Treasure Island!!

Read an interview with Sara Levine