Another collection of short stories, and yet another book that is at least ostensibly about Judaism. Apparently the title is a reference to Raymond Carver’s 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which according to commenters on the Guardian’s review of the book, we should denounce because it’s becoming over-referenced and lazy. Personally I’m in two minds. The story it’s taken from, it fits perfectly, however I’m not sure that it fits the anthology quite so snugly.
I think the eponymous opening story is the best in the volume, which is unfortunate because in a way it’s all downhill from there. It begins, at first sight, to just be a character study, detailing the differences between a Hasidic couple from Jerusalem and a Floridian Reform couple. This then moves on comically subverting these differences before taking an unexpectedly dark turn with a thought experiment about who they could trust in the event of another Holocaust. It’s harsh, and the results are shocking, both to the reader and the characters, succeeding at something many short stories fail at.
The rest of the stories are, while memorable, less engaging. The best of them is childhood tale of a neighbourhood dealing with an anti-Semitic bully, which while interesting is hardly unique, save for a brief “he who fights monsters” moment, when the Jewish children, who are practising self-defence, ask the only Asian boy they know if they could have a practice pogrom against him. There’s also the frankly confusing account (which may be auto-biographical) of a man trying to piece together his family history. This would be fine, but it’s told through a series of about 60 micro-chapters in a way that makes it sometimes hard to tell what’s true and what isn’t. This may have been the point, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. There’s also a (again, rather dark) story set in a summer camp for pensioners, in which an elderly couple become convinced that one of their fellow guests was a guard in the Concentration Camp in which they were inmates. Though the plot plays out in a rather absurdist fashion, the fact the narrator and audience surrogate is eventually almost convinced by these two potentially senile characters is quite disturbing actually, especially at the end when the extent of their paranoia is revealed.
The largest story, both in terms of length and scale, is the decades long Sister Hills, which begins on the eve of the Yom Kippur War and chronicles the growth of a West Bank settlement until the modern day, and with it the effects that Israel’s culture and religious politics have on the two founding families. I admit that I may have been biased against this stories due to my opinions on the settlement of the region, but I just felt that I couldn’t sympathise with the main character at all. Yes, she loses her entire family one by one, but her transformation from grieving mother to bitter shell is so complete that she doesn’t exactly invite sympathy, especially when she manipulates a friend for whom she did a favour in time of need, ruining a number of lives in an unnecessarily spiteful way. Perhaps this is a commentary on the attitudes of certain aspects of Israeli society, but if this is the case then it’s really not made clear for an international readership that is not familiar with it, resulting in a story that just leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth once you’ve finished it.
The collection does have some stories worth reading, but I feel that in general it is less accessible than it perhaps could be. Englander is clearly a talented short story writer, but I think there is something lacking in some of these stories that detracts from the collections as a whole.