By Johanna Skibsrud
W.W. Norton & Company, 169 pages, $14.95
Rarely does a story collection offer an anthology of complete gems. Like albums, there is sometimes an oddball thrown in that doesn’t quite fit the overall theme. Yet in This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories, by Johanna Skibsrud, every single story is a keeper.
“If Martha at that time believed anything at all, it was that life, though sad in moments, sad in parts, was not—in sum—sad at all, and that the sad parts served in the end only to strengthen the overall story.”
Some tales are more linked than others, particularly those with the thread of expatriates in Paris. Yet even those stories that do not take place overseas have a commonality; all of Skibsrud’s characters face an obstacle and it is in their pursuit, and not necessarily their resolution, that these stars shine the brightest.
In “The Electric Man,” a maid in a Parisian hotel connects with a stranger who keeps well-guarded secrets, even while trying to get under the maid’s skin. In “French Lessons,” a girl takes up residence with Madame Bernard, a blind woman who shares an unexpected family history. From a father who fails at bonding with his daughter, to a traveler who is drawn to visiting Hiroshima, each story sheds layers of personality slowly, deliberately, as they examine the human nature of longing and desire. With characters that linger in the mind and off the page, Skibsrud’s collection is a winner.
Reviewed by Lori A. May