By Hana Zittel
Published Issue 112, April 2023
The Faraway World by Patricia Engel (2023)
“You and I swallowed and returned to the soil and rock that made us, erasing time and the lives we made in the other world, as if we’d never once dared to wander so far away.”
In Patricia Engel’s follow-up to her award winning 2021 novel, Infinite Country, she presents 10 stories of longing and transition. Set in Cuba, Columbia and the United States, Engel’s characters ruminate on the other lives they may have led or those they desire. In the opening story, Aida, a teenage girl is shaken by the mysterious disappearance of her twin sister. So sure that their otherworldly twin connection would let her know if something terrible had happened, she maintains hope that Aida’s out of character disappearance will resolve happily all while her parents’ marriage dissolves around her.
In the third, and mostly uniquely crafted story of the collection, dual narratives compete to tell the life of a twice divorced Home Depot manager who solicits a Colombian wife online and moves her to America. His self-serving personality and degrading behavior ring through his narrative while his wife exudes a roller coaster of feelings of missing home, disdain for her husband, guilt over not appreciating her new life, and love for her daughter born of this pairing.
In La Ruta, a cab driver in Havana is ambling through the emptiness of life while his girlfriend itches for any life that would take her away from Cuba. When he cannot give her the life she wants, she lashes out, “You think you’re so special because you drive your cousin’s almendrón and you make more money than I do. I’m the special one, Mago. Look at me with my glorious hair God gave me. I’m like an angel in this dark hell.” He is briefly pulled from this monotony when he picks up a young girl making good on her promise to the saints to visit a church every day for a year until they bless her with the opportunity to move to California. This desire for the imagined life just out of reach haunts all the characters in The Faraway World. Engel’s characters often fly too close to the sun, about to get everything they hoped for before falling back to earth.
The Faraway World exemplifies Patricia Engel’s character development mastery. Each story is soaked with a yearning for more and the aching impatience with the present. A triumph of storytelling, Engel’s collection is captivating, wistful and tinged with sorrow.
The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill (2023)
“Mothers don’t stay on the farm. They fly away.”
Lingering on the edges of genre fiction, Kelly Barnhill’s novella, The Crane Husband, takes a grim, surreal and dystopian interpretation of the Japanese folktale, The Crane Wife. In a rural town, all farming has been overtaken by a conglomerate, tending the fields through drones through a central office, further disconnecting people from the land. A 15-year-old is living on farmland land passed down through generations. Unable to work it, her mother creates intricate tapestries to sell to wealthy collectors. Our unnamed narrator struggles to keep her family afloat after the death of her father, making sure her erratic artist mother eats and her young brother gets to school.
When a giant crane with a broken wing is invited into their home by their softhearted mother, she is perturbed but not surprised. However, something is amiss with this unwelcome houseguest. She starts to notice bleeding injuries on her mother after she spends hours locked away with the crane, supposedly working on a new tapestry. When she sees a naked man wandering the property in the middle of the night, her suspicions grow while her mother continues to decline, refusing food with new bruises and bloody wounds appearing daily. Keeping a promise to her late father to keep the family safe, she realizes that if the bird stays her family will crumble.
Kelly Barnhill has breathed new life into this folktale building a story of fate, abuse and the lore that surrounds family. Her twist of gender creates an even darker scene than the original tale. Tragic and fantastical, her vision of the near future displays a bleak existence where our mastery of technology results in a future driven by greed, leaving only the tight connection of family left to protect.
Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.