Valerie Martin is a consummate stylist. A cool, spare writer who can make the fantastic utterly, often horribly believable, she has drawn readers into sympathy with such unlikely and unlikable characters as a plantation owner who is jealous of an enslaved woman, the object of her husband’s unwanted lust (in the 2003 Orange Prize-winning novel “Property”), and the naïve serving girl of the increasingly odd Dr. Jekyll (1990’s Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize winner, “Mary Reilly”).
In her latest collection of 12 short stories, 10 of which have been previously published, that gift is on full display. A mermaid washes ashore, with murderous intent. A magical suitor displays bad behavior, as do all sorts of more realistic lovers and spouses, artists and writers. Most often, the stories resolve with a twist — some tragic, some simply odd — that causes them to linger in the reader’s mind: cautionary tales about the mysteries of life.
Throughout, Martin’s descriptive language is provocative and precise, revealing as much about characters’ inner states as the physical realities around them. A disenchanted lover, for example, is driving through Rome and sees “the Coliseum whirl into view like a murderer leaping from the shadows.” A drowsy girl, on the verge of adolescence, remembers a visit to the mouth of the Mississippi and thinks “of how the river must look, swollen with brown water.”
What makes these characters credible, however, is often what is not said. That mermaid, for example, is never entirely described. We are invited to imagine her features by her reaction as she examines a human mouth, “which she thought incredibly ugly, and his genitals, which confused her.” These absences promote the illusion of normalcy, the strangeness to be revealed slowly, as in the works of Franz Kafka, who is referenced in several stories. After all, we don’t need to be shown that which is usual.
The stories, divided into three sections, are roughly chronological. (The last two are previously unpublished.) Read in order, they show 30 years of artistic growth, and some of the earlier writing has false notes. In “The Cat in the Attic,” in particular, references to cocaine and drunkenness feel generic. However, Martin’s gift for characterization is apparent from the outset. In “Spats,” the first story, a spurned lover works out her conflicting emotions on the beloved’s dog.
If that sounds harsh, it is. Animals do not fare well in these tales, although Martin writes quite beautifully about them. Beasts here often seem to have their own unexplored narratives, like the rabbits that “undertook amazing excavation projects, after which they spent hours cleaning their paws and sleeping in the sun.” Not only pets but the odd rat and lizard appear in these pages, the latter meticulously described: “small, bright green with a pink throat, opening and closing over its glassy eyes the mauve double folds of its curious eyelids.”
“Among the Animals” is, in fact, the first category of stories here, followed by groupings labeled “Among the Artists” and “Metamorphoses.” But these three themes are present throughout, and often intermingled, with magical, surreal imagery evoking both creativity and sexuality in characters who are male and female, straight and lesbian, human and not.
Characters shed identities “like a reptile’s skin,” and women are frequently described in feline terms, both physically and in terms of their behavior: “Women lapped this stuff up like cream,” observes one straight, misguided male. Mythology is woven into these characters as well, as another male narrator sees himself act “[l]ike a dog” one moment and the next become “pitiless as a god.”
Such rapid shifts add to the ambiguity that makes these stories so magical. In “The Change,” one of the best of the collection, a man senses his printmaker wife’s withdrawal from their marriage as she goes through menopause. When he discovers that she is also creating some of the best work of her career, he begins to understand other changes that she is going through. A stunning final image leaves him with “a thrill, as of discovery,” though whether he is witnessing a literal transformation or a natural wonder is left to the reader. Either way, his final nighttime vision serves as a gorgeous metaphor for the artist at work.
Sea Lovers: Selected Stories
By Valerie Martin. Nan A. Talese,
315 pp., $25.95
Clea Simon is the author of 19 novels, most recently “Code Grey.” She can be reached at email@example.com.