Time and time again, writers draw from mythology and fairy tales. Fabulist authors such as Lauren Groff, Kelly Link, Karen Russell and Margaret Atwood examine monumental family sagas and twisted love affairs through this lens because these universal stories demand the profound gravity that emerges only from a distorted sense of reality. Amber Sparks’ crackling, dark clutch of sharply focused short stories falls into this canon. “The Unfinished World and Other Stories” satisfies a deep urge to probe the raw limits of human desire and loneliness.
Stretching the limits of physics, Sparks opens her collection in outer space on a space station. There, a reclusive janitor slinks out of eyeshot from astronauts, hiding behind the banner of an urge to be closer to God. In truth, she wants to remove herself from Earth and earthly complications. “She feels happiest near the deep green shadows pooled in the corners of the station, listening to the low hum against the endless silence of the stars. This feels safer than God. It feels honest. It feels removed from any human notion of heaven.”
Sparks’ characters ache to find solace beyond religion or mythology. “Lonely is the only thing the janitor owns. It is the only thing that’s hers. And that makes loneliness beautiful, out here among the cold and bright beginnings.” This is no Genesis tale. In beginnings lie bleak, glistening realities.
Several tales attempt to rewrite history through time travel, while others struggle to work beyond the finality of death and decay. Having been taught “how to preserve and make dreams of the dead,” an orphaned brother and sister run a taxidermy studio out of their crumbling family home.
Throughout the collection, love remains a mystery, troubled by the conflict of communication. A man honors his dead wife’s mania by creating leichenhaus — “death homes” — that enshrine the dead. Embedded in his craft is the truth that “Every death is a love story. It’s the goodbye part, but love is still there, wide as the world.”
Two artists incapable of settling into a partnership orbit each other with no urge to forge a union. They mail each other increasingly complicated pieces of art as “messages slower but more powerful than those carried in the digital noise of the world.” A lonely young woman clings to her tutor because he recognizes that “the most important things in the world were the kind you made up for yourself.”
Sparks recognizes perverse mythology uncovers the most innate truths about human nature and connection. When the stories you’ve been told aren’t enough, make up your own. Forged in an evocative and sensual fire, these tales transcend tradition to shine new light onto timeless complications.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native of New Orleans, she lives in Brooklyn.