Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Taking Time to Remember: Peter Crowther's Jewels in the Dust

When there are so many good choices for high-tension, depth-bloated, zoom-through-the-whole-thing-in-one-night reading, it’s comforting to have work from authors like Peter Crowther that can feel slower, simpler, and more savory. His latest short story collection Jewels in the Dust contemplates and entertains without rushing and lends itself to becoming a familiar companion on your bedside table.

Jewels in the Dust contains thirteen short stories spanning ten years of publication, from nearly the beginning to the end of Crowther’s short-story writing career. These stories strongly represent Crowther’s fascination with fantasy. Phantasms, magic totems, fairies, and time travel variously propel the stories to reexamine loss, mortality, and belief. All of this is done with a measured pace and a solid grasp of atmosphere.

I wouldn’t want to mislead you into thinking that these stories plod or examine their navels to create this slower pace. The prose remains tight throughout and the set-up to each story is engaging. It’s hard not to finish any of the stories once you start them. Crowther sets his hooks – a drug smuggler looking to escape his debts with a trip to England and a cat, a homeless man setting fairy traps, a dying man being visited by the spirits of those waiting to die after him – and pulls the reader all the way through, even in the least tense of the stories. 

Instead, Jewels becomes a more measured read because Crowther makes each story feel like a fable or fairy tale. Characters feel iconic, settings resonate rather than stun with detail. In the simplicity of some of the elements, it becomes easy to identify with the larger themes being highlighted by whatever magic wanders through the narrative. In one of the stories, “Old Delicious Burdens,” a couple is so astonished by the memories of their marriage come alive in their house that they forget the specifics of the “fight to end all fights” that nearly led to their divorce the night before. In the same way, all of the stories make room for magic and let details fade enough to make the stories both intimate and unusual.

This approach does have its idiosyncrasies; particularly in the older stories, there are times when the stories will sum themselves up with bluntness approaching Aesopian. However, Jewels is not trying to hide its messages. Fairy tales have always had significantly mature messages. They remain worth mulling over because of the clarity of their metaphor and (as is especially the case here) the veracity of the fears they explore.

In the last story in the collection, “Thoughtful Breaths,” one character asks, despite the obvious evidence that the magical parts of her life have mundane explanations, “how could anyone want not to believe?” Each story in the collection asks the same question in its own way, to believe even with the magic and the fiction laid out before us, to find something greater in the worlds we embrace.

Reading a story from Jewels in the Dust feels like opening boxes in an under-visited attic, withdrawing items that feel both familiar and strange, and then, lost in surfaced memories, sifting through that same box for longer than you had meant to spend doing the job you came up there to do. The items themselves could be simple – a stuffed animal, a photo, an old report – and their old significance feels imminently apparent, but you find something new to discover or, at least, to remember.

By Tyler Gegg

Jewels in the Dust will be available from Subterranean Press on September 30, 2013.