A good short story collection can be an overstuffed attic, a trunk overflowing with costumes and masks, a cabinet of curiosities. Rather than pulling you into one world and making you love a cast of characters over time, as a novel does, a collection can function like a jewel, each surface refracting light in a unique way, showing you a different part of the world or the human mind. Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World is a very good short story collection. Each time you think you’ve hit the bottom of the trunk, there’s one more mask tucked away under a tulle skirt; each time you think you’ve seen every curiosity in the cabinet, you come across a stuffed albino alligator or a preserved bear’s tooth hidden in a corner.
The best part? Sparks never lets you get too comfortable. Do you think you’re in some gossamer-winged fairy story, where true love will prevail? Because you might be in a story with a serial killer, or with an unhinged brother, or with a father who cannot love. Sparks will show you a perfect knife with an intricate blade, make you fall in love with its beauty, and then turn it and slice you right down to the heart before you realize what’s happening.
Some of the stories are quite realistic: “The Janitor in Space” is only a help-step beyond our current reality, in which space travel is so routine that NASA has the resources to hire a woman to be a dedicated space janitor, rather than needing trained astronauts to clean up after themselves to save, well, space. “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” is mostly a story about two sisters who grow up along diverging paths, with only a hint of the fantastical. “And the World was Crowded with Things that Meant Love” is, as you would expect, a love story, and a magical one, but it’s also constructed entirely of real world materials.
There are plenty of genre-heavy stories here, too! “Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting” deals in time travel, in a perfect way, with a person dead set on removing a classic painting from her timeline for reasons that only become clear as the story unfolds. “Lancelot in the Lost Places of the World” does what is says on the tin, sending Lancelot on a quest to find the mythical land of Prester John. Here the joy of the story is in Lancelot’s absolute dedication to chivalry—faced with being brought to life hundreds of years after Camelot, he undertakes the quest, thinks his way through many perils, and treats all the wild people he meets as potential brothers-in-arms—which all adds up to a portrait of a man who lived by a different standard of hero-dom. This is subtle but wonderfully done.
Sparks is fascinated by our not-so-distant past, when the world was a little more mysterious than it is now. “Birds with Teeth” treats early paleontology as the adventure it probably was. The title story, “The Unfinished World” follows two kids through the first decades of the 20th century, as their elder brothers explore the Antarctic or are lost in World War I, their sisters become glamorous kept women or furious mothers, the world is wracked with fevers and choleras… Finally, the story washes ashore at the Golden Age of Hollywood, when making a movie was as exotic and thrilling as traveling to the jungles of Africa or South America. Nothing explicitly fantastic happens here (although there is one central mystery which Sparks leaves unsolved) but life itself takes on the flavor of fantasy.
Sparks is particularly good at riffing on other writers in fun, twisty ways. I read “The Fever Librarian” as a Calvino/Borges homage, but Sparks is so down-to-earth and tactile that the story becomes something very different. It posits an otherworldly realm where fevers are catalogued. Like the best of these types of stories, it announces the premise and dives straight in—we never learn what the application process is like for a fever librarian, or who her references were, she is her job. She is the catalogue of every fever that has ever shaken through a person or a society, but she is not allowed to feel those fevers. Unfortunately, she’s beginning to slip. Her private battle with her own fevers is interwoven with historical definitions of different types of fevers from the Egyptians, the Greeks, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammed Zakariya al-Razi, and Charles Mackay. “Fevers” here include everything from medical conditions to fads like goldfish swallowing, waterbeds, and bloodlust in the form of the Crusades. Since Sparks isn’t afraid to tackle real emotion, even at the risk of falling into sappiness, the Librarian’s plight becomes a real, fraught experience for the reader. At the same time, she’s perfectly comfortable with the high concept highwire act of conflating Congo Hemmoraghic Fever with that weird period when Hollywood was churning out beach movies—taking the ancients’ idea that fever was any temporary “passion” whether emotional or physical, which then reminds the reader that the emotional is physical and vice versa.
I saw “Take Your Daughter to the Slaughter” as a particularly American, gun-toting reworking of Angela Carter. The story reimagines Take Your Child to Work Day as a violent bonding experience between fathers and their daughters, with a fair amount of psychosexual subtext bubbling up with all the blood. This story shows off Sparks’ amazing compactness as a writer—it’s not even three pages long, but it packs a centuries-old tradition, werewolf lore, purity dances, and every uncomfortable “dad getting a shotgun for the boys as his daughter reaches puberty” joke into one tight, perfect story.
“Things You Should Know about Cassandra Dee” and “The Process of Human Decay” both use frameworks that could become gimmicky, but each works such a fine balance between the macabre and the heartfelt that they transcend their structures. The first is written as a series of numbered paragraphs that tell a chronological story of Cassandra Dee’s tragic life. The story transcends the structure by announcing at the outset exactly what’s going to happen, but then executing the final act in such an unexpected, and emotionally gutting way that it works completely. “The Process of Human Decay” follows the literal process of human decay, from “Fresh” to “Dry Remains”, but uses that skeleton to explore a human life in all its complexity and desperation.
The longest story in the collection, “The Unfinished World”, clocks in at 78 pages, and shows off the strengths of the long short story. It’s expansive skipping across decades, and introducing us two very different children: the coddled Set, born into a rich, eccentric family and told from an early age that he died and only came part of the way back to life, and lonely Inge, the youngest daughter of a German-Irish family whose patriarch torments her and abandons her after her mother dies in childbirth. Set has a children’s book author for a mother. His eldest brother, Cedric, is an explorer by trade, while middle brother Oliver is a bit nebulous, but also gives Set free run of the Cabinet of the Curiosities that he’s collected in his travels. Oliver’s lover Desmond usually lives with the family, while only Sister Constance is a kept woman and lives in a fabulous apartment in the city. They are the Glass Family by way of Grey Gardens, and I love them all. I especially love that Sparks allows real tragedy to come to them, rather than wrapping them in twee. Inge, made tough by years of neglect and/or abuse, leaves Ireland to travel the world, and the two crazy kids weather World War I, the Spanish flu, the birth of Hollywood, early documentary filmmaking, and a series of tempestuous love affairs. Are they fated to come together? Even If they do, can true love save anyone in the opening decades of our modern world? I’m certainly not going to spoil it.
The entire collection is fun and surprising—in that lovely way that walking along in waist-deep water is fun and surprising when you suddenly step off the edge of a trench, and find yourself kicking through a much colder and darker situation. The Unfinished World will remind you how powerful and self-contained an experience a short story can be.