Fiction - paperback; Beautiful Books; 352 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Anyone who claims that they don't enjoy short stories, hasn't read this collection by Simon Van Booy. Love Begins in Winter, which won the Frank O'Connor Award for Short Fiction last year, comprises five stories about love, loss and longing in prose that is both elegant and engaging.
"From the opening line he grabs the reader's attention and maintains focus," said one of the judges of the Frank O'Connor Award. "His language is lyrical and sings off the page. His stories are full of the most exquisite insights, aphoristic without ever seeming like mere conveyances for ideas."
I couldn't put it better myself. Indeed, I also concur with Publishers Weekly, which claims "each of these stories has moments of sheer loveliness".
As well as the real international flavour of the settings -- Canada, USA, Wales, Ireland and Sweden -- and the diverse range of lives presented -- musicians, doctors, diplomats, gondoliers -- there's an almost magical quality to Van Booy's writing. And his use of language is divine, painting gorgeous pictures in just a sentence or two.
Here's an example from the title story, about a French cello player who falls in love with a Welsh woman still traumatised by the death of her brother in childhood:
Watching my father lift the caravan onto the hitch of our family sedan was like watching Atlas take up the world on his back. Then, on the motorway, my brother and I nesting in the back as my mother's hand appeared behind the seat with a smile of orange for each of us, my father quietly navigating our fortress to a field on a hillside at a distance from our Welsh village unfathomable to us.
And this, from The Coming and Going of Strangers about a Romany Irish boy who falls in love with a Canadian orphan:
The landscape stretched before Walter like in a painting -- lines of dark green hedgerows, a cluster of bare trees, an ancient gate hung during harvest, dots of hill sheep and then the fabric of the sea.
There's an aching quality to his writing too (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music), a kind of gentle longing and a tenderness that makes the stories emotional without being saccharine. Van Booy was widowed in his early 30s (the book is dedicated to his late wife, Lorilee -- "If you are not here, then why are you everywhere?") and is now raising his young daughter alone, which might explain his penchant for characters on the brink who find renewed reasons for living when they least expect it. Above all it is a hopeful, optimistic book, full of wisdom, humanity and nostalgia.
These are the kinds of stories that wrap themselves around you in their intensity, and yet there's something strangely calming about reading them. I found them the perfect antidote to the stresses of my working day -- and the perfect length (roughly 30 to 40 pages) to devour in a lunch hour.