Book review: Bark

by Lorrie Moore

Book review: Bark

Tiresome to-ing and fro-ing about novels versus short stories should stop with this work of fiction by Lorrie Moore that does so much brilliantly.

The characters feel like they’ve been there or thereabouts all the time on the fringes of your extended family but it has taken Moore to absolutely nail them down and make them recognisable and truly alive.

And then there are the observations on life, death, relationships, old people, young people; the hit-rate of spot-on insights is just eye-popping.

For readers who are implacably wedded to the novel, okay this is a book of short stories, but wow, what writing.

Death casts a shadow over the book. But funnily enough this only serves to enliven everything and create the kind of edginess that comes with being alive in the first place.

Shortlisted for the most recent Frank O’Connor international short story award the book now wings its way in paperback.

Moore has a wonderful knack for counterpointing some enormous doom with some hilariously depicted domestic minutiae. She is a class act and can take your breath away with an apparent throwaway.

A mother at a wedding remarks that her terrifying teenaged daughter’s child self is beginning to fade from view and from memory. She says that, like all dreams, it “sharpened artificially into stray vignettes when I tried to conjure it, then faded away entirely.”

A lot of different kinds of relationships are dramatised in these stories but older couples are the strongest suit in the pack.

Moore doesn’t flinch at the sight of liver spots on skin, she stares at them with the almost gleeful curiosity of a child.

One of her aging characters won’t buy green bananas as he considers it too reckless a hope in the future. In the hilarious opening story a divorced man with a daughter is trying to ply his way into the affections of a divorced woman, who effectively gives her teenaged son the casting vote on who she sees. He says that wouldn’t work for him:

“If I left those matters for my daughter I’d be dating a beagle.”

Even in one of the two arguably not quite so terrific stories — ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘Subject to Search’ — there are sublime moments.

And when she is good she is devastating. In ‘Wings’ there is the line that women urge each other into relationships with men to be rid of one another. And consider this love story:

“She loved Dench. She was helpless before the whole emotional project of him. But it didn’t preclude hating him and everything around him, which included herself, the sound of her own voice — and the sound of his, which was worse.”

Moore’s last book, the novel, A Gate at the Stairs, was a big success for the American but the short stories here are much more muscular and biting and have the feeling of writing that will stand the test of time — for their tough humour and beauty.

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