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Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Karen Brown’s Little Sinners, and Other Stories features a sad, strange mosaic of women and men grappling with the loss and pain of everyday existence, people inhabiting a suburban landscape haunted by ghosts: a mother who leaps from a ridge, a mistress found at the bottom of the Connecticut River, a father who dresses in a pale blue-custom suit—and disappears. The dead leave behind postcards, houses, bottles of sherry, bones. They become local legends, their ...
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Karen Brown’s Little Sinners, and Other Stories features a sad, strange mosaic of women and men grappling with the loss and pain of everyday existence, people inhabiting a suburban landscape haunted by ghosts: a mother who leaps from a ridge, a mistress found at the bottom of the Connecticut River, a father who dresses in a pale blue-custom suit—and disappears. The dead leave behind postcards, houses, bottles of sherry, bones. They become local legends, their stories part of the characters’ own: an expectant mother in an isolated cottage on Long Island Sound uncovers an unsettling secret in her backyard; a troubled housewife is lured to a dinner party by a teenage girl whose mother has vanished under mysterious circumstances; a woman and her lover swim the pools of their neighborhood under cover of darkness; a young heiress struggles with mortality and the abandonments in her past.
These stories capture the domestic world in all its blighted promise—a world where women’s roles in housekeeping, marriage, childbirth, and sex have been all too well defined, and where the characters fashion, recklessly and passionately, their own methods of escape.
"Brown's detailed style, meticulous in describing character and place, creates realistic slices of life. . . . Her stories will appeal to short-fiction readers for their strength of style and depth of emotional resonance."—Ellen Loughran, Booklist
— Ellen Loughran
"Karen Brown pulls off a Steinbeck-ian trifecta (powerful realism, literary depth, and unpretentious storytelling) with Little Sinners. This is a powerful and rare achievement that defines only topnotch authors."—Michael Adelberg, New York Journal of Books
— Michael Adelberg
"The work of Karen Brown might be described as suburban noir, because it takes the expected situations, the same old rituals of everyday life and shows us the seedy underbelly, the darker moments, the ways we fail and fall down. . . . With an ear for life and history, an eye for the little things we take for granted every day, and a heart full of longing for our hopes and desires, she gives us a powerful collection of stories that will stay with us long after the dinner bell has rung and the children are sound asleep."—Richard Thomas, Nervous Breakdown
— Richard Thomas
"One of the greatest strengths of Little Sinners, and Other Stories is the way Brown ends each piece. She has a knack for the backhanded reveal and settling into just the right emotional pitch, something between despair and anxious resignation, a feeling that aptly fits her characters and settings. Her endings are complicated moments, revelations of the tension between wanting to give in or wanting to give up in the face of one's interior darkness."—Michelle Bailat-Jones, Necessary Fiction
— Michelle Bailat-Jones
Little Sinners 1
The Philter 69
An Heiress Walks Into a Bar 87
The Fountain 109
Leaf House 141
THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Little Sinners and Other Stories (University of Nebraska Press) by Karen Brown is a collection of tales set primarily in the supposed domestic bliss of quiet, suburban life. But these tales are anything but mundane and conservative: they reach out into the shadows and chipped sidewalks that surround these cookie cutter lives that fall apart all around us. Death and betrayal, loneliness and desperation, dreams dissolved and love left cold on the doorsteps of our everyday existence—these are the stories we are given.
Secrets are scattered across this collection of stories. Sometimes they are revealed to us at the end of a story, everything finally adding up to a gasp or a sigh. Other times we are told what has happened, many years ago. Take “The Philter,” a story of wealth and privilege that slowly reveals the family secrets, witnessed from a rock atop a hill, naked flesh on a well-lit stage below. What is to be believed? Something is off:
“Miranda cut the cake, one glazed with fruit and giving off a cloying, almost perfumed scent. She served the coffee while Georgie poured the brandy. I sat quietly, accepting the cake, the drink in its crystal snifter. I didn’t know if Sarah and Miranda’s mother was dead, or if she’d run off with a lover. I didn’t wonder why Sarah believed she was buried in the garden. Any of these things could be true, and the possibility of them filled the night with something clandestine. I felt the power of their secret, and I wanted to know it. Sarah stared at me across the table like an unrequited lover. Her cake sat untouched on its plate.”
Sometimes the story unfolds in front of us, and we are pulled into the drama, the history. Do we say something, take a stand, or quietly disappear into the night and forget that anything ever happened? How quickly a gesture of kindness turns into a flight for survival, anything to keep our previously boring lives intact.
Another recurring theme is that of loss, that of leaving—fathers, mothers, anyone of influence who has shaped and bruised our hearts. Take this thoughtful moment from “Passing” where a visit to the old homestead brings up memories of a different time, the passing ghost of a father long gone:
“He left when I was fifteen and Keely twelve, and I can remember only the loss of him that lurked in my mother’s bland look, her absent nod, the hands that dried themselves over and over on the dishtowel, and then the faces of neighbors, pitying, curious, and their food, in white Corning Ware casseroles, that arrived for years because no one knew when to stop. Still, we see these clean dishes stacked on the kitchen counter, and I think our mother must never cook.
In our house his absence was so forcibly felt, it was like an unidentifiable smell that followed you from room to room, and I could not stay there. Keely left soon after, pushed out, snubbed by the loss of him, unable to stand the smell of it that we have come close to naming—a mixture of oranges and freshly cut grass. I have never missed him. I do not remember the sound of his voice. When people ask me about him, I tell them he is dead.”
When you are left with only the echo of the punch, the wreckage that lies about after the damage is done, what does it look like? Many times it still honors the monster, unable, or unwilling, to move on.
CONTINUE REVIEW AT THE NERVOUS BRE