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In a Bear's Eye
Yannick Murphy

We are driving for rabbits. In a paper my husband has seen rabbits for free a few towns over. We get to a house that has land enough for horses and rabbits. The mother sends her children to show us the rabbits. She is at work sharpening an ax on a stone to cut the head of a chicken. ...My husband and I decide on the rabbits we will take home. To thank the mother we have to wait because she is killing a chicken. The chicken's head falls off. We say thank you. "

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

Short stories are complete entities to themselves, which is why a single-author collection of short stories is in a way a most unnatural thing. A short story should be savoured alone, should stand and fall on its own merits, not in relation to its siblings alongside. However, to take the opposing view, a collection gives a greater insight into the writer's worlds and characters, the themes that appear - whether intended or not - across many stories. So, reading a collection of stories pulls in two directions: there is the desire to keep reading the next story and the next one, and the wish to pause in between and savour. 

With Yannick Murphy's astonishing, perturbing collection of 24 short short stories, In A Bear's Eye, I would counsel the second course of action, because reading too many in one go can cause a reader to be too deeply embroiled in Murphy's lyrical, disturbing rhythms, her sideways impressions of people and events. Singly, each piece, highly economical with words but by no means short on all the elements necessary to make up a memorable, powerful short story, punches in the gut, dizzies with its twists and turns and reveals newness in familiar relationships and familiarity in bizarre situations. 

The final story in the book, Ready in the Night, is an excellent example of what I mean. Less than two pages in length, it is about father and son, distance and longing, connection and lack of it. This is the opening paragraph: 

Wild mushrooms grow on the hotel lawn. He has seen them grow in the night as he held the curtain aside. His son has told him you cannot see mushrooms growing, but the father has seen the white tops coming up brighter and rounder every hour, a field of rising moons.

So much is contained here: we know where we are, we know who our protagonist is, we sense the tension between father - awake in the night -  and son, and there is the magical element of the growing. The story does not go in any pat, expected directions, such as father and son watching mushrooms together. No, Murphy doesn't take any easy routes out, she wants to unpick what it means to be a parent, a child, the difficulties, the small moments, the regrets. 

What this story also excellent demonstrates is Murphy's obvious fondness for her characters, all of whom are flawed, as real people are, having made and continuing to make mistakes. There is no faintly ironic narrator that can often be found in third-person stories who observes and comments on the characters. The narrator witnesses without analysis. For example, from The Only Light to See By

The mother took the girl back home. When the mother went to bed that night, the girl stood up on her mother's bed and wrapped the covers around herself like a cape, and the mother thought to herself that the girl looked as if she was an eagle, grown from out of the sheets and ready to fly.

These stories take place in various countries. There are animals – dogs, bears, cows, rabbits, cocks, eagles. There is nature – lakes, mountains, seas, forests. And there is death, or the possibility of death. Murphy, who also writes for children, employs in many of these stories a sing-song rhythm, as can be seen from the quote at the top of the page, with words repeated again and again. This lulls the reader in and often it is not until you have finished a story that you realise how distressing its subject matter actually is, whether it be the almost-bear-attack, or a mother dealing with her daughter's reaction to a neighbor family's murder. This is not to say that these stories are universally gloomy but many of them are not for the faint of heart. In some, the language veers towards poetry and the meaning is not always clear, but as with good poems, nevertheless it strikes chords. 

This is independent publisher Dzanc's second short story collection, and as with the first, Roy Kesey's All Over, these stories require the reader to do some work, to read between and under, to let go of the need to know more. If you put in the time and effort, you will most definitely reap rewards.

Read one of the stories from this collection, Aunt Germaine, in the Vestal Review.

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"


PublisherDzanc Books

Publication Date: Feb 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No, second

Book website: Myspace.com/Murphysinabears eye

Author bio: Yannick Murphy is the author of the novels, Signed, Mata Hari, Here they Come and The Sea of Trees. Her first short story collection is Stories in Another Language. Her children's books include AHWOOOOOOOO! and Baby Polar (which is forthcoming in 2008/2009). She is the recipient of various awards including a Whiting Writer's Award, a National Endowment for the Arts award, a Chesterfield Screenwriting award and her story In a Bear's Eye was recently published in the 2007 O'Henry Prize Stories.

Read an interview with Yannick Murphy

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Dzanc





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If you liked this book you might also like....

Roy Kesey "All Over"

Yannick Murphy "Stories in Another Language"

Aimee Bender "Willful Creatures"

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