Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

Although I’m normally very resistant to reading a lot of new fiction, I’ve been attracted by what I’ve heard about Edith Pearlman’s work. She’s written short stories for years, winning prizes for them as early as 1978, but her first collected volume seems to have been in 1996. Her collection “Binocular Vision” was published by Pushkin Press to great acclaim and so I was delighted to receive a review copy of her new volume, “Honeydew”, courtesy of John Murray Ltd and Bookbridgr. I approached this book with an open mind; I love reading good short stories and I was interested to see what Pearlman’s would be like. I wasn’t disappointed…

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“Honeydew” gathers together twenty of Pearlman’s short gems, the earliest of which seems to be “Conveniences” from 1984. I say “seems” because the book doesn’t actually tell you, and it would have been interesting to know the span of years the stories cover. Nevertheless, there is a coherence of voice and setting so that you always know you are reading Pearlman. It’s clear from the outset that she’s really nailed the art of telling a short story, of dropping into a situation and relating how small incidents in people’s lives are somehow significant. I’ve seen comparisons made with Chekhov and while their works seem to me very different, she gets inside her characters very quickly and brings them fully alive in much the same way as he does.

Many of the works collected here are set on Godolphin, described as “a wedge of Boston” and it seems this created location might owe something to Brookline, Massachusetts, where the author lives. It has a small-town feel to it, and there are recurring characters and settings (the pedicure salon, Tenderfoot; the antique shop Forget Me Not and its owner Rennie) which give an overall coherence to the collection, a sense of interlinked tales. In these stories, humans go about their business: Bonnie Flaxbaum watches her husband from the window of Forget Me Not; Rennie the owner thinks she’s found a friend’s childhood sweetheart; Paige the pedicurist makes tentative attempts towards a relationship; and in the environs of a hospital the oddest relationships spring up.

There’s always a quirky, strange element to the stories, something off-key that knocks you slightly off centre. One in particular, “Castle 4”, which is centred around a medical unit has a very skewed vision of reality but nevertheless people make a life for themselves around the hospital. This story in particular went off in a very unexpected direction, poignant but uplifting at the same time.

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The writing is quite beautiful and the atmosphere dream-like and slightly unreal in places. It was the Godolphin stories that spoke to me most, with their wonderfully observed tales of the residents’ lives and loves, happinesses and sadnesses. Having so many of these based in the same location is very much in the tradition of classic US storytelling – Sherwood Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio spring to mind, for example. However, I have to confess that there’s one story I didn’t read, because of the subject matter. “What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” covers the subject of FGM, and that’s something that upsets and angers me so much that I couldn’t comfortably read a work of fiction about it.

If I had any niggles with the book, it would be that there was a slight detached quality in the narrative. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the cause; perhaps the quirkiness becomes a little *too* much and gets in the way of you identifying with the characters in some places. But I think it’s worth treating these stories as fables rather than hard, realistic tales and this is only a minor comment. Edith Pearlman’s prose is lovely, her stories imaginative and captivating, and I can understand why her last collection received such acclaim. “Honeydew” is a worthy addition to her canon and I very much look forward to reading more of her work.

(Review copy kindly provided by John Murray Limited and Bookbridgr – for which many thanks!)

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