Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin 978-1-61620-797-7, $24.95, 304pp, hc) February 2018.
Kelly Barnhill follows up her Newbery Medal-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon in a most unexpected fashion: with a collection of fantastical short stories for older teens and adults. Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories is the kind of writing that does not rely on shock and awe, but rather on fascinating characters doing unusual things in evocative settings. It is certain to broaden Barnhill’s fan base and should draw favorable comparisons to Neil Gaiman with ease. Prepare for a wholly unique reading experience with this collection, one to be savored with each luscious page.
The book opens with “Miss Sorensen and the Sasquatch” which avoids the issue of the Sasquatch being real (everyone in this town knows it), and instead considers the ramifications of a respectable if eccentric widow embarking on a relationship with him. What are these proper churchgoing townspeople to do? How do they respond to this unorthodox pairing in their midst? A comedy of manners with a most divine protagonist, “Miss Sorensen” presents many opportunities for hilarity that would not, less the Sasquatch, be out of place in any Austen-like setting.
“Open the Door and the Light Pours Through” is the story of an RAF soldier who has left his wife Angela behind for duties that include dealing with foreign soldiers whom he terms, “our dear American guests.” The separated couple exchange what appear to initially be predictable letters, but which quickly take a turn to the odd and downright mysterious. At the same time, John embarks on affairs with the visiting soldiers and, through their separate reminiscences and the letters, noticeable fractures in their marriage are revealed. Also, Angela is a painter who sees ghosts and whose letters are appearing, Hogwarts-style, in the unlikeliest of places. It’s a romantic and tragic story at the same time, a not-so-happily ever after tale that still is achingly beautiful.
Miss Sorenson returns as a small character in the eerie story of small town politics and control, “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife”. The Greek chorus who narrates this tale of a power-mad mayor/overlord and his vacant-eyed second wife (whatever became of the first?) is going to strike readers as remarkably prescient. It is… unsettling and creepy in the best sense of the words. One does not know exactly the hold the taxidermist has over everyone else, other than what they allow him to have. Just why they allow it is never directly addressed, but readers will see how it could happen, and how the other wife could simply vanish with no one raising the alarm, no one rising up to demand answers. Sinister doesn’t begin to define this one.
In the World Fantasy Award-winning novella that closes the collection, “The Unlicensed Magician”, Barnhill again challenges readers to be their better selves, to challenge the status quo (whatever that might be), and to believe. That seems corny, I know, but it’s not at all in this context. This story is about a secretly powerful young girl who rises up with the aid of those who have just enough courage, and takes down a petulant king who has wrought his own personal pain upon the populace. That magic is a key component to “The Unlicensed Magician” makes it only more marvelous, but the heart is still the people, good and bad, who inhabit this story, and how they make their choices and how those choices come back later to roost.
In other stories there are more characters (heroes and villains), to embrace and so many more words that are artfully and elegantly placed on the page. Barnhill reinvents fantasy with these characters, infusing them with depth and wisdom that transcends the often bizarre and outrageous circumstances (like marrying Sasquatch) in which she places them. The classic mean girls of the title story, the pirate/revolutionary of “Elegy to Gabrielle”, the murdered mother, a former would-be princess abandoned by her weak-willed prince, in “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake”, all of them are strange, yet all of them are just familiar enough. Barnhill insists we see them as constructs of our reality, as possibilities in the almost here and now. She demands we consider their bravery, their eloquence, their irrefutable relationships with truth. “See them,” she tells us, “see them and see yourselves.” This is lovely writing and not to be missed.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2018 issue of Locus.
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