A Book of Endings is a short story collection by Deborah Biancotti. I first came across Ms Biancotti’s work when I read Bad Power earlier in the year, which I liked very much. As a result I’ve been eager to get my hands on A Book of Endings.
So, already being predisposed to like Ms Biancotti’s work, I got about three quarters of the way through A Book of Endings and felt compelled to click the “become a fan of this author” button on Goodreads. I enjoyed the way that characters were described and developed (difficult in the shorter forms), I enjoyed the turn of phrase used and I found the settings and language to be atmospheric. It was a great reading experience.
That’s not to say that I necessarily “got” every story. There were quite a few times where I had to go back and give a story a second read (or at least read the last few paragraphs very carefully) to draw a conclusion about what I thought had happened. In the Afterword, Ms Biancotti talks about her stories being criticised for having an unsatisfying ending (hence the name). As I’ve reflected back over my reading experience of the collection, I realised that I’d spent a great deal of time over the last week or so musing over various stories, puzzling and teasing away at them at the back of my mind while I formed an opinion on what I thought they meant. That, to me, is not an unsatisfying pastime.
(Of course, in re-reading the previous paragraph I realise an alternative explanation for my inability to achieve immediate comprehension could be a lack of intellectual horsepower on my part. I choose to believe that the stories are designed to provoke thought and thus have a deliberate level of ambiguity. It helps me sleep at night).
Ms Biancotti speaks in the Afterword about the theme of work that runs through many of her stories – one’s sense of identity outside of work, balancing work with life, the terrible things that can be justified as just being part of a job. It was interesting to reconsider some of the stories in that light when preparing for this review. That kind of reflection is not something I would normally do when I finish a book – a benefit perhaps of taking the time to write up a review!
There are 21 stories in the collection. I’m not going to comment on them all or give away much by way of plot/storyline (not useful when describing a collection of short fiction), but I will make comment on a couple of examples that particularly struck me.
The collection opens with a couple of intriguing stories that start off in a seemingly normal world, and get progressively weirder. Diamond Shell and Number 3 Raw Place create the sense of a contemporary setting, then gradually created a steadily increasing sense of the disconnection for the characters using supernatural devices. Both stories had endings that fell into the “read twice” category for me.
Hush was an interesting take on future world where human minds are mashed in with animals. Once I started to read it I realised that I had come across Hush before in audio form on the Terra Incognita Speculative Fiction podcast. The ending of this story really stuck with me.
I enjoyed the structure of Pale Dark Soldier, with the form of the story matching the state of mind of the narrator. Well developed and very disturbing.
The stories in the middle section had a more dystopian feel – futures with energy and water shortages for example. A good example was Watertight Lies, which particularly caught my attention for its very enjoyable dialogue and was certainly one of the stories where the ending was easily understood, but was somewhat of a cliff hanger, leaving you wanting to find out more.
Six Suicides was another story where our found the structure very interesting – interconnected mini-stories which gave an experience somewhat akin to peeling an onion as layers of the story were revealed.
I really enjoyed The Tailor of Time and King of All and the Metal Sentinel. Both stories focused on creatures acting out a pre-programmed course (literally in one case). The stories providing interestingly contrasting treatments of the ability transcend the limitations of your job, and I think it was a good choice to have the two stories next to each other in the collection.
I found Stealing Free to just be a fun story – I liked the level of the absurd (I’ve never ever thought of a thieving Salamander as the hero of a story). The vast bulk of the stories in the collection deal with more serious themes, Stealing Free did a good job of providing some comic relief – a transient lowering of intensity which helped sustain the reading experience.
The Razor Salesman did an excellent job of building tension throughout the story with a surprising result at the end. I found it quite gripping.
Overall I found this to be an excellent collection, thought provoking and beautifully written. It has reinforced my hope of seeing more work by Ms Biancotti in the future – I would love to see what she would do with a longer work. Highly recommended.
I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.