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‘Burning Girls and Other Stories’ fractures fairy tales

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The world of fiction will always have room for fairy tales.

The genre fluidity that comes with literary fiction leaves plenty of space for writers to explore the vast expanse of fantasy and morality that springs from the classic fairy tale. And so when we see modern authors adapting the ethos and entities of those long-told tales, it can be engaging in ways both intellectual and visceral.

That’s the energy that Veronica Schanoes brings to her new book “Burning Girls and Other Stories” (Tordotcom, $25.99). It’s a collection of 13 stories, a baker’s dozen of fairy tale-inspired works driven by the dual powers of the fantastic and the feminist. It incorporates tropes of the fairy tale realm into stories of women fighting back against a society that devalues and others them; there are elements of punk rock and Judaism and revolutionary leftist political thought as well.

These disparate elements could have resulted in stories that were uneven and muddled, stitched-together Frankenstein’s monsters of overstuffed pastiche. Instead, Schanoes wields her razor-sharp craft like a scalpel, carving every one of these pieces into something distinct and idiosyncratic and undeniably powerful. Intellectually challenging and emotionally intense, it’s a collection packed tight with highlights.

From “Among the Thorns,” the bleak and vivid revenge story that leads off the collection, to the combination immigrant fable/industrial horror of the titular tale that closes things out, “Burning Girls and Other Stories” is filled with memorable, haunting stories. The former is set in centuries-past Europe, the latter in the early 20th century, moving from Poland to New York City. Both are filled with deeds of dark magic.

Other personal high points include “Ballroom Blitz,” a story of a group of brothers cursed to spend their lives trapped in the dingy confines of a dive bar, causing chaos at night and cleaning up the aftermath in the day. “Lost in the Supermarket” and “Alice: A Fantasia” offer very different riffs on aspects of the classic “Alice in Wonderland.” “Lily Glass” is a story of tragic love set against a backdrop of old Hollywood. And lest we forget, the self-explanatory “Emma Goldman Takes Tea with the Baba Yaga.”

On and on they go, each story a wonderfully self-contained work of controlled chaos and shadow magic. Folktales of long-ago magic and creatures from beyond the veil. Stories of returning the dead to the world of the living. These are tales in which evil is present, but while some of these stories hinge on that evil, others are driven by an understanding that the universe is neither caring nor uncaring, but simply indifferent to us, sufferings and celebrations alike.

And again – while the magic of fairy tales carries through, we also get a variety of other influences. The revolutionary ideals of the mid-20th century are prevalent, with figures both real and fictional from that sphere appearing periodically. The protagonists of these stories – almost all women – are also guided by a desire to throw off the yokes of oppression, whether it is by exacting revenge on those who wronged them or moving to a new land of opportunity or simply submerging themselves in an edgy punk rock subculture.

There’s a lot to dig about this book, but one of the most immediately striking things one notices upon finishing is the fact that the stories are somehow wide-ranging AND clearly related. They each operate under their own individual parameters while also sharing DNA. Like any family, there are outliers that nevertheless share similarities.

“Burning Girls and Other Stories” also has that quality that marks the best short fiction collections – a compulsive readability. Each story is so provocative and so satisfyingly concluded that the reader almost can’t help turning the page and diving into the next.

All of this brings us to this fundamental truth: Veronica Schanoes is one HELL of a good writer. To be able to bring together such wide-ranging influences and ideas into stories that are not just coherent, but downright compelling … wow. She’s got an ear for sharp dialogue and an ability to seamlessly and effectively blend historical fact with folkloric detail – all of it in service to stories that have elements of the familiar incorporated into a beautiful originality. Some real writerly gifts on display throughout.

“Burning Girls and Other Stories” is a book that I wasn’t expecting, a surprise that became more and more exciting with every turned page. One of the truest joys of my job is discovery – reading and reviewing authors whose work I know and love is great, of course, but there’s nothing like realizing that this new book from an unfamiliar author that you chose is not just good, but more than good. “Burning Girls and Other Stories” is more than good.

In fact, it is straight fire.

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 09:19

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