In recent years, many a debut short-story collection has come filled with off-the-wall tall tales that snag our attention, then warp our minds. Such collections are now a dime a dozen — so much so that it can be tricky finding one of real value. How to hear a genuinely original voice above the boisterously competitive crowd?
Clare Beams’ voice rings true throughout her masterful first collection, “We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories.” Cannily, she covers more than one base, appealing to readers who prefer disjointed, otherworldly scenarios and those who like their fiction grounded in recognizable reality. She also ensures that every situation or flourish, fantastic or otherwise, is infused with or informed by credible human instincts and emotion.
Pittsburgh-based Beams previously taught high school English in Falmouth, Mass. One hopes that the four stories she sets in or around schools are not based on personal experience. In the book’s title story, both the shortest and the strangest, a beleaguered teacher quite literally comes unstuck and goes to pieces in front of her fifth-graders. In another, a prominent town donor endures the aftershocks of an undisclosed school tragedy — one that has rocked the community and reduced a group of mothers to “a tribe of grief.”
But it is Beams’ first story, “Hourglass,” which is by far her most memorable school outing. We follow Melody as she arrives at the Gilchrist School for a “transformational” education. Despite the best efforts of her teacher, Miss Caper, and headmaster, Mr. Pax (“our great shaper”), Melody refuses to fit in — that is, until she is made to. The story acquires mystery when one of Melody’s classmates disappears, then turns sinister when we learn of Pax’s “special project” for his protégées and his definition of “beauty and bettering.”
Several stories take the reader back in time and explore missed opportunities, aborted plans and unrequited love. In late 19th-century Boston, a young architect embarks on a huge venture but ends up falling for his wealthy employer’s daughter. In 1932, a teenage boy becomes infatuated with a married guest at a dubious health resort. And in London during the outbreak of the Great Plague, a woman hides her love for her infected sister’s healthy husband.
In all nine tales, Beams downplays drama by treading lightly and providing the subtlest of touches: teasing out details, hinting rather than announcing, letting characters explain their actions and oddities in their own time. Only in “The Drop” do we encounter authorial heavy-handedness and a too-thin conceit — a wedding-dress made from a parachute — stretched to snapping point.
Beams’ collection skillfully and alluringly navigates the border between the familiar and the unexpected, and beguiles and unsettles in equal measure. Just like Melody in Miss Caper’s poetry class, we should immerse ourselves and read each story “swimmily, floating in its currents.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories
By: Clare Beams.
Publisher: Lookout Books, 178 pages, $17.95