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Lily King Tries Her Hand at Something New: Short Stories

As in her novels, many of the stories in King’s first collection of short fiction, “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” are preceded by loss and ignited by desire — the pursuit of which often hinges upon its articulation, the ability to find the “words for all that roiled inside you,” as the protagonist of the title story, a reticent used-book seller, puts it. He’s surrounded by evidence of the power of language in the form of the tattered classics that fill his shop, but after the departure of his wife, he struggles to express his affection for his daughter, not to mention his growing passion for his shop assistant. King supplies the words for him with the kind of interior monologue we can relate to: After a date with the wrong woman, he feels “abstracted and disjointed, and it occurred to him that the sensation was only a slight magnification of the feeling he felt all the time.”

Parents in King’s early fiction were often both larger than life and unavailable — alcoholic, narcissistic or otherwise absent. It’s a theme in these stories, too, though the standouts tend to paint generational impasses with a finer, softer brush. The moment of connection between the bookseller and his daughter, when it comes, is fittingly awkward and tender, and one that neither will forget.

In “The North Sea,” a German woman, abruptly widowed and left in financial straits, takes her teenage daughter on a seaside holiday, hoping to break through the grief that has silenced them. “Adults hid their pain, their fears, their failure,” the widow reflects, after treating her daughter to a horseback riding lesson she can’t afford, “but adolescents hid their happiness, as if to reveal it would risk its loss.” The ending, in which the daughter babysits for an irritatingly happy Australian family staying at the same inn, is as twisted as it is gratifying.

It says a lot about King’s dexterity with tone that a father’s breakdown and suicide attempt is the background to the collection’s most amusing story, “When in the Dordogne,” in which an adolescent is left in the care of a pair of boisterous college boys who teach him, in essence, how to enjoy life — and how to talk to the girl on whom he has a crush.

King’s acuity with all that roils inside us often puts me in the mind of Tessa Hadley or Joan Silber, authors who shun ironic distance for forthright proximity, whose feminism is implicit, who could inscribe the contents of the human heart on the head of a pin. In the final story, “The Man at the Door,” a writer’s doubts in her own talents following the birth of her son come knocking in the form of a man who demands a gin martini and proceeds to shred her confidence. “I have never understood why a person who is not a genius bothers with art,” he tells her.

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