Wednesday, 17 September 2014

By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente

From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in. Across 13 stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief.
Goodreads description

The short story form seems extremely well-suited to magic realism and vice versa. I have reviewed some excellent short story collections on this blog and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of this collection from the publisher. I wouldn't say that By Light We Knew Our Names is as high in my estimation as Moscow, But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia or Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, but it is very good.

The focus of the stories tends to be on relationships, especially on those things that go unsaid when people in a marriage or a family experience a trauma, such as the death of a loved one: 

To a Place Where We Take Flight - a teenage boy prepares to play a concert in the hospice where his mother is dying. The story explores the relationship between father and son as they try to cope with the impending death.
Terrible Angels - this time the story explores the experience of a teenage girl and her father after the death of her mother, with the ghostly presence of her grandparents leaving clues around the house.
If Everything Fell Silent, Even Sirens - a strange noise, perhaps a tornado siren or perhaps the call of dolphins, reflects or calls forth the deep anger and pain of a young pregnant wife, who has lost her father.  
A Taste of Tea - a mother's response to her husband's desertion seen through the eyes of her teenage son.
Minivan - the narrator, a teacher, worries about his partner, who has been sexually assaulted, and is unable to reach her. 

Anne Valente is very good at portraying the otherness of the world of children and sometimes uses magic realism to explore this:

Latchkey - when Sasha receives her birthday present from her parents she refuses to open it, although urged to do so by her friends - Ben whose head is encircled by planets, Travis whose belly is a fishbowl, and Jane who has a small librarian in her pocket. What is in the present and will Sasha open it?
A Very Compassionate Baby - a baby becomes obsessed with a flower in the garden and his father becomes worried that the baby sees something else.
Not for Ghosts or Daffodils - a father and his daughter try to cope with the departure of his wife and her mother for a new life which excludes them. The girl creates an imaginary friend (the ghost of a daffodil). When a pink baby dolphin arrives in the bay, the animal takes on special importance for both of them.
Until Our Shadows Claim Us - a class of children believe they have summoned up the phantom of a childkiller as over a year members of the group disappear from their beds.

Another subject that features in Anne Valente's stories  is the world of teenagers and their rites of passage:
Dear Amelia - a group of girls follow the exploits of Amelia Earhart admiringly as they realize that they are trapped in a life which condemns them to be half bear.
Everything that was Ours - the story of a group of young men who steal two dinosaurs from a theme park.
By Light We Knew Our Names - a group of girls, trapped in a town where abuse of women is common, meets under the Northern Lights to practice fighting back. 

Not all the stories are magic realism; some might be but the treatment is so ambiguous that you cannot know and some aren't magic realism. As always there are some stories I liked better than others. I found the themes and their treatment a bit narrow. I suppose I like my magic realism to fly more, but that is a personal preference. Nevertheless the collection shows that Anne Valente is an author to watch.

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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