The Jungle Around Us: Stories by Anne Raeff
2016, University of Georgia Press – Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Stories
These stories are beguiling in their quiet simplicity, but, as one proceeds through the collection, they gather mass, until, at the book’s end, the reader marvels at their accumulative weight. Raeff achieves this, all the while maintaining a light elegance in her prose; she is that rare writer, a humble one, who keeps her head down and hides her power, or attempts to do so, yet her brilliance shines through. She draws her characters with deftness, interconnecting many of them throughout the book, which is why, perhaps, it feels that the author keeps cracking open doors to show a bigger picture than the one within the pages. Indeed, each story seems to contain a novella or a novel within, as if the text had been gently whittled down. Though Raeff is expert at this short length, it would be wonderful to have these stories expanded into longer works.
Due to the interweaving of some characters, the collection eddies in our consciousness, as, one by one, we meet the protagonists and then move on to another set of people, only to return to the original characters again. This swirling effect is increased by their heady dislocation into humid jungles, literally and psychically, and then their escape into the cool, colorless cities of New York or Leningrad. The extreme contrasts inherent in these environments are augmented by the peculiar displacement of the characters and their families—most are of Jewish/Middle-European heritage, who have escaped Nazi Germany. These transplants seem incompatible in their new locations, places such as Bolivia, yet they often find unexpected solace and self-awareness there.
This collection should be read twice in order to draw the strings more tightly between stories with repeated characters and also to experience the nuanced themes more fully–Laury A. Egan, author of Fog and Other Stories and Fabulous! (forthcoming, November)