A collection need yield only one really great story to be, itself, great, and Peter Ho Davies's Equal Love
offers such a story--the deceptively low-key "Cakes of Baby." A couple--he's Indian, she's white--spend Thanksgiving with the wife's family. Nothing much happens. The husband, Sam, plays with a toddler, the wife, Laura, argues with her sister. But Davies uses the short-story writer's most hackneyed milieu--the holiday get-together--to tell a thoroughly fresh tale about class. A family can encompass both good and bad luck, as the author telegraphs neatly in this quick interchange:
Later, as the wine moves round the table, Nick starts up on the market. How they should all get in on it. How there's easy money to be made. "It's our middle-class duty, all right," Phil says, laughing, but Suzy says she's not middle-class. She's a waitress, she says, looking around the table. Derek's a mechanic. He nods. How's that middle-class? "While your Uncle Phil is digesting that foot in his mouth..." Marilyn starts, and Laura tries to help by adding that being middle-class isn't just about income.
This is a story preoccupied with how people love each other, and also with money--two subjects that bump up against each other a lot in real life but seldom in the workshoppy kind of fiction Davies specializes in.
Davies (The Ugliest House in the World) has been celebrated, anthologized, presented with the O. Henry Award, and he certainly does the thing he does--the production of ambiguous feeling in the reader--very, very well. Many of his characters are academics, but they could just as well be butchers or yardmen; they do plain old human stuff--consider having affairs, fight with their parents, raise their kids. In fact, his second collection comes off as almost anti-intellectual, so devoid is it of literary game-playing. The only foray into formal play, "How to Be an Expatriate," derives directly from Lorrie Moore's stories in the imperative voice in her 1985 collection, Self-Help. But Davies eschews her bitter wit in favor of remorsefulness: "Look at old photos. Reread letters. Wish you'd kept a diary. Think, you chose this. You're an expatriate, not an exile. It's what you always wanted." Here is a writer who takes feelings seriously, whose risks are emotional and never formal. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
In his second collection (after The Ugliest House in the World) Davies again proves himself an acute cultural observer and facile prose stylist. Whether set in his native England or in America (where he now lives), his stories use resonant, precise images to pave the way to intimate truths. In "The Hull Case," a mixed-race couple reports being abducted by aliens. For Henry Hull, however, who's already "had to work hard to be believed most of his life," the project of reporting the alien encounter to an air force colonel becomes symbolic of the complex anxieties he, as a black man, suffers in his marriage to a white woman. In "The Next Life," a Chinese-American man arranges a traditional funeral for his father, a prominent businessman. He gains a fuller understanding of himself as he watches the ritual of burning paper houses, cars and money, and listens to the hired mourners. The punchy "How to Be an Expatriate" captures the excitement and disorientation of starting a life in a new country. Written in the second person, it shows how shifts in language mark changes of a more significant, emotional kind: "Your mother sends you a Manchester United shirt, which you put in your closet. Which you used to call a wardrobe. Write articles about Britain and the British. Say you had to leave to really understand your home." Dislocation is a common theme, as in "Small World," where a man named Wilson returns to the Boston neighborhood where he grew up, finding the landscape both altered and seductively familiar. Striking combinations of disappointment and pleasure, alienation and belonging, longing and ambivalence occur in each of the 12 entries here, unifying the collection with Davies's compassionate voice, sure craftsmanship and complex vision. Agent, Witherspoon Associates. Author tour. (Feb.) FYI: Stories from Equal Love have appeared in Harper's, the Atlantic, Ploughshares and the Gettysburg Review.
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