Where do they keep coming from? Over the last handful of weeks I’ve read and reviewed Near + Far by Cat Rambo, At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson and Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand—three new collections of short stories, all from small presses, all by female authors, and all superb. And then, just when I think it can’t get any better, along comes Karin Tidbeck’s debut collection Jagannath, which may just be the best one of the bunch. If you take into account that this is Tidbeck’s debut collection in English and that it was translated from Swedish to English by the author herself, it’s hard not to be awed by the sheer level of talent on display here.
Karin Tidbeck had been writing and publishing short stories in Swedish for several years when, given the relatively small number of venues for short speculative fiction in her homeland, she decided to set her sights on the English language markets. She applied for and was accepted into the prestigious Clarion Writers Workshop, translated some of her own stories into English, and lo and behold, slowly her name started popping up in English language publications. The first time I spotted her was in last year’s inaugural issue of Unstuck Annual (which I reviewed here) with the quirky, tender story “Cloudberry Jam”, but I freely confess that, at that time, I had no idea yet of what she was really capable of. Thanks to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Cheeky Frawg imprint, we now have a lovely, slim volume of Karin Tidbeck’s stunning short fiction.
In her introduction to this collection, Elizabeth Hand writes that it’s “rare, almost unheard of, to encounter an author so extraordinarily gifted she appears to have sprung full-blown into the literary world, like Athena from the head of Zeus.” That’s absolutely spot-on: in the thirteen stories in her English language debut, Karin Tidbeck consistently displays staggering levels of originality, skill and confidence. Her range is amazing. I haven’t been this excited about discovering a new short story author since a good friend practically forced me to read Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.
Speaking of range: one of the most impressive qualities of Jagannath is its diversity. In terms of style, these stories range from gentle magical realism to somewhat terrifying Nordic-tinged mythical fantasy, from folk tale to mind-bending science fiction, from a faux non-fiction text about a mythological creature to something that reads like a collaboration between Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick. Some of these stories operate in the realm of the deeply personal, focusing on melancholy, dreamy family memories, while others are so alien that even the concept of family as we know it is no longer recognizable.
Despite this diversity, there’s a strong sense of unity and cohesiveness to this collection, thanks to the common thread of Karin Tidbeck’s visionary imagination and subtle, incisive prose. Throughout this collection’s wild spectrum of forms and ideas, Karin Tidbeck’s writing simply shines. She has mastered the art of keeping things simple on the surface, letting the story speak for itself, and subtly goading the reader into investigating what’s been left unsaid. She has the nifty ability to introduce something utterly bizarre early on so the reader takes it more or less for granted, and then build outwards from that point.
Given the emotional and conceptual richness of these stories, it would have been all too easy to overwrite them, but instead Tidbeck maintains an impressive discipline when it comes to writing economically. These stories are tight; not a word is wasted. Even more admirable is that the resulting clarity of expression never comes across as cold. Instead, Tidbeck’s writing is frequently moving, tender, occasionally even funny. Her prose is an amazing balancing act that’s all the more impressive coming from a debut author.
And again, let’s not forget: Tidbeck isn’t even writing in her first language here. In Jagannath’s Afterword, she writes eloquently about how difficult it is to transmit the complete range of meanings and connotations of certain Swedish words and expressions into English. Her translation does occasionally result in a slightly awkward turn of phrase, but this just serves to emphasize the strangeness of these stories and the difficulty of contorting your mind and imagination into a new language. I once started learning Spanish because I wanted to be able to read Julio Cortázar’s short stories in the original language, and as crazy as it may sound, Jagannath makes me itch to learn some Swedish.
This collection is full of characters and ideas that will remain with you for a long time, from the sad, confused man who falls in love with a miniature airship (at one point plaintively thinking “How he wanted to climb into her little gondola”) to the poor, abused woman who will go to any length to draw the attention of the Lord and be relieved of her suffering; from the drab government employee running the most surreal switchboard ever to the elegant, otherworldly courtier who accidentally introduces time into the floating, timeless lands beyond the veil….
It’s hard to pick favorites from this incredible lineup of stories, because new connections and shared themes reveal themselves upon re-reading. Just the way Tidbeck explores the idea of parenthood from story to story and from setting to setting is both wonderfully inventive and, at times, somewhat disturbing. The way these stories continue to reveal new layers and levels of impact makes up a lot for what I would consider the collection’s only real weakness: it’s too short. This is a masterful debut, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been this impressed with a short story collection, but weighing in at just under 150 pages I simply wanted more. I wanted more to such an extent that I ended up reading Jagannath twice, back to back, and then almost swung right back around for a third read-through. I’ll take quality over quantity any day, but still: please send more stories soon, Karin.