The characters in Sabina Murray’s brilliant but uneven collection “Tales of the New World’’ are explorers, travelers, people with a thirst for the unknown, people looking for a better life, a better self, but who ultimately find that any escape from the past is only temporary. The stories in “Tales’’ - her first collection since her PEN/Faulkner-winning “The Caprices’’ - are all based on historical events. Some are imaginative glosses on the bare names and dates that are all we have from the past, others a speculative retelling of well-documented lives and episodes. The best are masterly explorations of bitter, terrifying truths; the weakest are unfinished vignettes that seem to have been included to pad the collection in order to make a full-length book.
The strongest story here is “Fish,’’ an almost-novella based on the life of 19th-century explorer Mary Kingsley, who spent her childhood and youth in seclusion caring for her invalid mother. After Mary’s mother dies, Africa is her refuge from the constraints of her family, who expect her to keep house for her brother or tend to other sick relatives. In Africa she is more than just an appendage to other people’s lives. After a day in a village where she is the first white visitor, she reflects, “Here she’s looked at all the time, unlike in London, where she disappears into sofas, wallpaper, wainscoting, drapery, like some sort of spinster chameleon. Here’s Mary, she thinks, here I am, as if she’s been waiting for herself in the jungle all these years - waiting to be found.’’ It’s but one of many passages in which Murray skillfully and eloquently takes us into Mary’s consciousness, into the loneliness and misery underlying her apparent daring.
Other, shorter pieces in this collection also are well worth a reader’s time. “Paradise,’’ a chilling retelling of the mass suicides at Jonestown, is both a poignant exploration of the loneliness and desperation that can lead people to yearn for a messiah and a meditation on the inexplicability of evil. In “The Solace of Monsters,’’ the overly imaginative whaling captain Zimri Coffin is tormented by nocturnal frights until he rescues the survivors of the destroyed whaleship Essex and learns that nightmares can be a welcome refuge from more terrifying realities. In “Translation,’’ the Renaissance writer Antonio Pigafetta joins Magellan’s expedition looking for adventure and instead finds a yearning that will torment him the rest of his life.
Some of the remaining stories don’t live up to the standard set by their predecessors. “Full Circle Thrice’’ is a maddening and unsuccessful self-conscious narrative about the art of storytelling. It darts back and forth between an authorial consciousness and that of the 17th-century author and adventurer William Dampier, and is sprinkled with references to Dampier’s influence on the works of Swift, Defoe, and Coleridge. “Balboa,’’ based on the life of the eponymous Spanish explorer, has barely gotten started before the narrator retreats from the main character’s consciousness and omnisciently recounts how his life will end. “Last Days’’ is an effort to depict a moment in the final years of the Aztec empire but fails as a credible re-creation of the past, cobbled with a beautifully written but somewhat impenetrable meditation on the finality of all.
However, the successes in this collection more than offset the failures. Unless you’re talking about the likes of William Trevor or Mary Gordon, short story collections are almost inevitably uneven. “Tales of the New World’’ is the first work of Murray’s that I’ve read. I’m tempted to try more.
Kevin O’Kelly reviews for the Globe and blogs at notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.