Karen Joy Fowler is an exceptionally versatile author. First pegged as a literary talent of historical fiction and a PEN/Faulkner finalist, she's now best known for "The Jane Austen Book Club," a contemporary feel-good novel adapted into a fluffy 2007 movie. Fowler also regularly writes in the fantasy and sci-fi genre.
"What I Didn't See" collects 12 short stories that span her eclectic critical and commercial successes. The title story concerns a 1928 gorilla expedition. "Halfway People" is a seaside tale of peasants, misunderstood queens and mermaid variants. Another selection details the "darkwash 7jeans," vampire books, and pink iPod downloads of today's teenage girl.
Despite their thematic variety, these dozen stories are often narrated from a first-person point of view by a tough, unblinking female with bad news to deliver. It's a crisp and economical voice that is both funny and reliable:
"I, myself, at five was deeply in love with my grandmother. At sixteen, when I liked no one else, I still made an exception for her. If Grams had ruled the world, the people at my school would have known how to treat me. You could go to her with problems; her advice was always good. She had the best possible combination of imagination and pragmatism, and she never told you you didn't have a problem when you thought you did."
A tart, folksy outlook is used for young girls and menopausal women, a California cult member and a scientist's daughter. This sameness is a weakness of the collection, although enjoyable within each individual story.
Like her Grams character, Fowler has "the best possible combination of imagination and pragmatism," as she applies unique narratives into carefully crafted structures. But "What I Didn't See" is best lingered over and savored. Too quick a reading will dilute the power of each story.
Holly Silva is a St Louis writer.