The Burning Glass
Blackwell North Amer
The burning glass of the title of Helen Norris' third book of short fiction is an archaic expression for the magnifying glass, and the metaphor is entirely appropriate. For a burning glass not only makes small things large, but focused long and precisely enough, it sets the magnified object on fire. And indeed, these nine superb stories are illuminated by the incandescence of words - and hearts - set ablaze. The characters in this collection range from young to middle-aged to old; the tone turns effortlessly from deeply serious, as in "The Wake of a Cry," the hallucinatory meditations of a soldier wounded in combat, to the cosmic burlesque of "A Bee in Amber," which Kafka himself would have admired.
"Inside the Silence" tells of a woman's visit to Majdanek, a Polish concentration camp, a visit so harrowing, so stunning in its paradoxical revelation of simple decency and our common humanity, that the woman finds herself changed forever. This profound exploration of the death camp's grim legacy concludes with words whose relevance cannot be too often repeated: "We cannot take care unless we know."
A number of these stories are scaffolded on themes of abandonment and adoption. In "Mirror Image," an embittered young woman, after repudiating the father who abandoned her as a child, finds a substitute parent in an unexpected encounter with a dying Mafia don. In the heart-rending "Bread upon the Waters," Elvie, a young orphan, accepts with stoic equanimity the fickle benevolence of a shallow society matron. In "Raisin Faces," Coralee, a failing old woman whose rapacious family wants her out of the way, finds her sole ally in Hattie, her black maid.
"The Inglenook" presents the life of a widow in the South - a "Yankee woman with Yankee ways" - with economy, emotional veracity, and, ultimately, breathtaking beauty. In "The Cracker Man," which invites favorable comparison with the finest work of Flannery O'Connor, a woman arranges a fireworks celebration for her great-grandfather's one hundredth birthday, a celebration that ends in spectacular disaster - and budding hope.
Anyone familiar with the work of Helen Norris will hardly be surprised by the richly varied textures of these stories and by Norris' astonishing ability to capture with absolute accuracy every hue along the emotional spectrum. Those lucky readers encountering this writer for the first time are to be envied.
Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Branch Call Number:
193 p. ; 24 cm.