Sunday, August 27, 2006

New Short Stories From 05 IMPAC-Dublin Winner Jones

NOTE: "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones was the winner of the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world's largest prize for a single work of fiction.

Jones' Descriptive Powers Elevate Stories Of Ordinary People

Hartford Courant
August 27 2006

When Edward P. Jones' first novel, "The Known World," won a Pulitzer and unleashed torrents of praise, it seemed that a notable new American author had come out of nowhere.

But Jones does come from somewhere, and his latest book reminds us distinctly of where. Every story in "All Aunt Hagar's Children" is populated by characters who were born in or migrated to black neighborhoods in Washington over the span of the past century.

These are 14 stories about ordinary people and the things that happen to them, the kind of stories that people tell each other over lunch, over coffee, at a party. A woman who loves to dance suddenly goes blind. A neighborhood deals with a man who beats his girlfriend. A couple sacrifices a peaceful retirement to raise their grandchildren. A man gets breast cancer.

Some of these people are poor, some are rich, but none of them is truly alone. They live in networks of families whose roots stretch back deep into the rural South, into slavery. They live in neighborhoods where ties of friendship and kinship last for generations. Even those who have slipped into a more alienated, modern existence are alienated from someone.

Jones has reached back past his Pulitzer-winning novel of American slavery to his first book of short stories, "Lost in the City." The characters in "All Aunt Hagar's Children" are minor characters from that first set of stories, and they are all descendants of slaves. (Aunt Hagar was a slave in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" whose children were taken from her and sold.)

In the luminously sad first story, "In the Blink of God's Eye," a young wife finds an abandoned baby wrapped in a bundle, suspended from a tree branch. As she becomes attached to the child, her disappointed husband sulks and she begins to withdraw from him. It is a masterly, resonant portrait of a disintegrating marriage, so vivid in its detail that it is instantly familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with love.

"There came to be nothing to talk about between them. He often pointed to something when he wanted her to do anything. At the dining table, with Joan and Willie and Earl and any guests, they sat as far from each other as they could."

Grace and clarity infuse every sentence of these unhurried stories, and Jones once again demonstrates his compassion for humanity, his fine ear for dialogue and his strong sense of place.

"Root Worker" is the story of Glynnis Holloway, a wealthy D.C. physician whose mother suffers from mental illness or - from another perspective - from evil witches who try to paralyze and suffocate her.

Glynnis and her father devote themselves to finding a cure, and fail.

"Family love was a good thing, but it seemed that there was not enough love - from husband or from daughter - that could stop the witches when they wanted to ride Alberta."

After Alberta undergoes years of unsuccessful treatment for mental illness, the father and daughter agree to take her to a traditional healer in North Carolina. Their encounter with the elderly "root worker" is rich with contrasts between science and tradition, big city and rural backwater, impatience and serenity.

This story and a few others turn misty and mythical. A woman walks on water. Another meets the devil in a grocery store. Another escapes death over and over.

It is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism - not fantasy but a kind of reality that seeks no explanations.

The greatest fiction writers can show us a world like that because their powers of description make explanations unnecessary. This is what Jones can do, and has done.


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