With thanks to NetGalley who gave me a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
These stories, originally published in Yiddish, are snapshots of a particular life: Eastern European Jews in the early years of the 20th century. Most take place in a shtetel in Skala, in what’s now Ukraine. A smaller collection is set in a Jewish enclave in New York City. The characters are mostly young women, depicted feeling torn between their ties to their community and culture on the one hand, and the possibility of excitement that might exist in a world outside of those things. Surrounded by rules, gossiping neighbours and afraid that their own thoughts and desires might be transgressive, some of these characters pull away from expectations, and some don’t. The ambivalence, however, remains. Many of the stories close with the character making a choice that will define her future, either breaking away from her community or drawing herself more tightly into it. It is up to the reader to make their own conclusions about whether or not she made the right choice.
The stories set in New York have more mixed themes, and a wider range of characters including some men. There’s a funny story about a newly-qualified dentist, being helicopter-parented as he sees his first patient. That said, the best stories in this collection are the Skala ones.
Shtok was primarily renowned as a poet, whereas her prose got a mixed reception. I can understand why. You won’t find the usual conventions of the short story form here: there’s no quick plot establishment smashing into a conclusion with a slight twist. They aren’t “what if this happened?” but rather “this did happen, to someone like this.” The setting is right in the middle of ordinary life, with people discussing the price of basic commodities, everyday events and the intricacies of their religious observance. The plot moves forward in the minds of the characters, many of whom are so conflicted that they themselves don’t know what they want or think. The clever part (and it is definitely there) is in the use of subtlety and symbolism. Shtok shows that you can swoop right into the thoughts of one person who seems to be living the most banal existence, and you can show there is a whole world inside them that others may know nothing of.
She writes short stories like a poet. If that sounds like your thing, you might dig this book. Even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, you might still dig this book. I did.