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book review

Original and beautiful stories of vulnerable characters under threat

Amy Hempel, one of our most acclaimed short story writers, is back with “Sing To It,’’ her first collection in more than a dozen years. In 15 audacious stories, Hempel creates an uncanny and mesmerizing universe.

Readers looking for plot or conventional character development may be baffled by Hempel; enigma, elusiveness, and extreme compression are the hallmarks of her fiction. Ten of the stories in “Sing To It’’ are two pages or less in length, and even the longer ones have reticent, strange, or withholding narrators. Rick Moody has praised the “nearly Japanese compaction” of Hempel’s work, and omissions are no accidents. Every word, phrase, and sentence is pregnant with possibility, and by indirection we find direction out.

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The opening story, from which the collection takes its title, is a half-page prose poem that establishes some of Hempel’s central preoccupations: the difficulty and poignancy of romantic love, the nature of endings, the yearning to comfort and heal, rescue and save, the relationship between language and actuality. A man orders a woman to do without metaphor: “At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else.” But even as it exemplifies the fear that language is inherently reductive, that figuration obscures as much as it illuminates, the story emphasizes the impossibility of being without metaphor; it concludes: “at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him. My arms the trees.”

Trees, a fragile man, and a woman who longs to console him appear again in “Fort Bedd,” where a couple has taken refuge in their bed, which they’ve turned into a kind of fort, constructing a makeshift bulwark against the ravages of time and the assaults of aging. Despite this decision to burrow in and shut out the world, the narrator longs for trees: “In a darkened apartment on the west side of the park, when things went wrong, I thought about trees . . . Trees take root, and I thought I could too — if I had enough trees to learn from.’'

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Another moment in the opening story distills the collection’s theme of how we act when things go wrong, how we confront perilous situations: “At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arab proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.’’

Danger approaches on multiple fronts in these stories. It takes the form of threatening weather; unfaithful, untruthful, or abusive men; menacing animals; corrupt institutions or organizations; “falling-down” houses. Mental illness, depression, and despair are common; virtually all the characters could be described as “lonely and empty inside.”

How we contend and cope with threats; be they physical or emotional, visceral or inchoate, is Hempel’s subject in each of these incandescent stories. Her characters seek solace, transport, reinvention, renewal. Some react to peril in ways that are themselves perilous: In “Greed,” a betrayed wife grows more deviously unhinged as she spies on her husband and his much older lover; “Cloudland”s narrator laments that she is “a person who does not recognize danger.”

All of the common images and motifs connect disparate narrators, settings, and situations in a kind of dream vision, making the collection far more than the sum of its exquisite parts.

The two longest stories in “Sing To It’’ are linked in all sorts of surprising and mutually enriching ways. Both have narrators who care for the vulnerable: “A Full-Service Shelter” is told by a woman who volunteers at a city-run animal shelter in Spanish Harlem, “Cloudland,” by a woman who works with the elderly in Florida. Both narrators are adrift, strange, and unusually vulnerable themselves: The shelter volunteer would rather clean waste out of cages “than go to a movie or have dinner with a friend”; the caregiver for old people was recently fired from her job teaching English at a ritzy New York City private school after doing cocaine with her students. Both have traumatic pasts that we learn about slowly and elliptically. And through rescuing and caring for the lost, sick, forgotten, they simultaneously suppress and heal from their own traumas and hurts.

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Throughout, Hempel asks: When is singing a form of denial, an act of occlusion, a whistling in the wind, and when is it a genuinely healing, redemptive, liberating act? Her own song is at once stark and resonant, witty and plaintive, buoyant and wistful, and this collection one of the most original and beautiful in recent memory.

SING TO IT

By Amy Hempel

Scribner, 160 pp., $25


Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’