Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett

 "It's not fair," I told Lisa L. Hannett over Twitter. When we talk about an author's style, it's usually a quality that's refined and polished over years. Hannett is one of those rare writers who can write using a variety of voices — and does so wonderfully. It's not simply having an ear for dialog, but possessing the ability to translate what's spoken into the written word and using it to convey to readers the mindset, upbringing, and culture of her characters. Every story in Bluegrass Symphony, for example, has a unique, unmistakable narrator. It's not simply knowing the difference between first-, second-, and third-person narratives, but knowing when to use it and understand the nuances of each perspective. Some writers, for example, avoid second-person because it's difficult to immerse the reader, but when Hannett does utilize it, it's a seamless experience. It's also not simply about sticking to one central theme as Hannett writes using different premises: fortune-telling hens, soul-smoking mayors, minotaur-infested dystopias, or even immortality-rewarding beauty pageants. But despite these seemingly disparate concepts, there's also this sense that this is uniquely a Hannett piece, as the reader will always find some form of tragedy and darkness lurking underneath every story.

That's the impression one gets after reading Bluegrass Symphony, and it's a clever title for a short story collection. There's no story titled "Bluegrass Symphony," and the author provides an explanation at the end of the book, but just from hearing those two words, it already conveys a certain expectation — and the reader wouldn't be wrong. If this were the Philippines, I'd label Hannett's stories as provincial, but for non-Filipinos, the country, would be a better description. Hannett certainly captures that kind of atmosphere, even when she's writing all these diverse stories — and as an aside, another unfair fact is that eleven of the twelve of the stories in this collection are original to the book. They are all very good stories, immediately winning you over with tone and character, but they're also challenging that if you skip a beat, you'll miss out on important details. There's insight at the end of each story, but it's not necessarily one that readers will always welcome: Hannett's fiction seldom ends pleasantly, or if it does, it comes at a steep price. "From the Teeth of Strange Children," for example, explores various types of relationships (some predatory, some otherwise), in addition to contributing something new to the vampire mythology. The exploration of these relationships is what makes the story shine, and it's these mixture of emotions that give it resonance. I'm still on the fence when it comes to the the effectiveness of the ending in "The Short Go: A Future In Eight Seconds," but it's a memorable dystopia, one that Hannett writes convincingly through her effective characterization. "Down the Hollow" is transgressive and haunting, yet is brief enough and contains all the elements that makes Hannett's stories wonderful and unique.

Bluegrass Symphony is one of those collections that feels more like an anthology due to the author's wide range. This is easily a must-read book of 2011, doubly so since most of the stories aren't reprints.

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