Short stories are like little gems and deserve to be appreciated as much as a novel. Quite often, the increased simplicity yet intensity of a short story evokes a whole range of emotions that we, as readers, don’t sense when reading a novel. Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision is one such powerfully evocative collection.
If you’ve been into Waterstones recently, you may have noticed Pearlman’s Binocular Vision on the ‘recently released’ table. The book is a collection of eighteen stories from previous books and three early stories never before published. It also includes thirteen new stories in which Pearlman muses on the themes of young, old, thwarted, and denied love; of Jews and their predicaments; of marriage, family, death, and betrayal. The collection was called ‘a new literary star’ by The Sunday Times, and Pearlman described as ‘a genius’ by The Guardian.
Pearlman was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and previously worked in a computer firm and in a soup kitchen. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian magazine, Preservation and Ploughshares. Her travel writing – about the Cotswolds, Budapest, Jerusalem, Paris, and Tokyo – has been published in The New York Times.
Binocular Vision has won multiple awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award. Based in a variety of settings around the globe, the reader is taken from Western Europe to Russia, and to Israel, Latin America, and Central America where we have the chance to experience the characters’ feelings as they fight to cope with a variety of outlooks and, for some, a notion of displacement and disconnection.
Pearlman writes about a lost child in an unfamiliar place, a couple helping to relocate Jewish people in Europe after the war, a young girl who devotes her afternoons to watching her neighbours and using her imagination to visualise the story behind their marriage, and an elderly couple’s decision to shoplift, among others. Many of the stories explore the idea of heroes and heroines, but also of the seemingly insignificant characters. Pearlman has a unique way of highlighting the narrative importance of these characters; in fact you could argue that these are her favourites.
One of the stories, Vaquita, is about Marta Perera de Lefkowitz, a Polish-Jewish doctor who trained in Prague before the war. She has become the Minister of Health in an unsettled South American dictatorship. With impressive courage, morals and principles, Marta realises that her liberal ideas will end in her arrest.
The divine story Purim Night describes a 1947 festivity at a displaced persons camp in Germany. The inhabitants are predominantly Jewish people who are awaiting admission to other countries. Supplies are running low but nevertheless the refugees are driven by hope: everyone has survived and is visualising their new homes in Israel, America and England. The story is about survival, togetherness and belonging. Pearlman explores the little details in this story just as the characters appreciate the little things in their own fight for survival.
Inbound concerns seven-year-old Sophie, who becomes separated from her parents in town. Her mother sees a girl carrying a brightly coloured new backpack, similar to Sophie’s, in a mass of people watching a street performer. She pushes the stroller with Lily, the youngest, over to join Sophie, not yet realising that the girl isn’t her daughter. Pearlman explores these emotions of love and fear, as well as a mother’s shame at allowing this to happen. However, she doesn’t restrict herself to these darker feelings. She has a superbly developed wisdom of the absurd, and humorous moments flash through each of her stories.
Pearlman’s view of the world is compassionate and detailed, conveyed through wonderfully precise sparks of life. Her characters experience emotions that we are all familiar with: anxiety and yearning, love and grief, loss and triumph. These moving yet sophisticated stories add something momentous to the literary landscape of short story writing.
Sometimes you assume you know how a story is going to progress, but then Pearlman transforms it into something dissimilar to your preconceptions. If you’re searching for some brilliant short stories and some elegant, perceptive and intellectual writing, then Binocular Vision is for you. It is a book to read slowly, to ponder, and one to have on your bookshelf so that you can read and live it again.