California high school teacher and author Anne Raeff won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for this arresting short-story collection. The characters in “The Jungle Around Us” often are partial misfits, in physical and spiritual exile or displacement, who do their best to survive and find joy in a strange, indifferent and perilous world.
The book’s title comes from the spookiest of the stories, “Maximiliano,” in which a character says, “You’ll see how beautiful it is in the morning — jungle all around us.” The jungle — in this case a real one in Paraguay — is ever-present as a metaphor in these stories, where characters often react to the presence or memory of darkness and danger.
Like Raeff herself, many of her characters are the American descendants of Holocaust survivors. The best of these stories feature two sisters, Juliet and Simone, the bright and loving daughters of a widowed professor. The girls’ observations lay bare the strangeness in the world that adults often overlook or take for granted. Once the two grow up, they remain complex characters, but there is something deeply sad about their adult selves, who are less curious and loving, more wary and damaged — an evolution that Raeff clearly intended for us to note.
These are not easy stories to digest, but ultimately they are rich and rewarding fare.
Pamela Miller is the night metro editor at the Star Tribune.
The Jungle Around Us
By: Anne Raeff.
Publisher: University of Georgia Press, 160 pages, $24.95.