The White Road
by Tania Hershman
Salt Publishing, 2008
A short story collection should begin with a bang, and Tania Hershman's The White Road does just that. Take the narrator of title story, for instance, the owner of a last-stop cafe on the main road to the South Pole. The starkness of the endless white and cold, combined with the encroaching isolation of being the last stop on the road on which hell froze over, makes one wonder how the narrator can be so calm, so resigned to a place where protective eyewear is worn outdoors to prevent blindness, where human contact occurs only weekly, sometimes longer. It is a special person who works in these environs and, as the striking conclusion reveals, also a little desperate and broken.
Hershman, a former science journalist, takes much of her inspiration for her collection from New Scientist magazine. In fact, Hershman's stories often begin with a quote from the article that inspired them. The book alternates between traditional short fiction and flash pieces, and although 27 stories may appear a little intimidating at first, they are a quick, engrossing read. Hershman does flash deftly, but it is during her short stories in which she really shines. She has particular empathy and insight into middle-aged British women, women who have lived and lost. Women who seem a little mushy all over but often make surprising and impressive choices. "Evie and the Arfids," one of my favorites, finds Evie working on the assembly line of a company performing questionable ethics practices. When a coworker she was befriended steals some merchandise, Evie must decide whether her loyalty is more important than her job. You don't get the sense from Hershman that this story, or any others, is deceptively simple. Her characters, while kindhearted, also tend to lonely, desperate, impulsive, and eager to do the wrong thing if it gives them the ever-elusive love and understanding they seek.
Hershman's other strength is her ability to keep the reader on her toes. She weaves the warbly, neon threads of magical realism together with the steel rods of science, and the effect often is very satisfying. In ths story "Self-Rising," a woman whose career in the laboratory is derailed by the arrival of marriage and children opens a cake business that specializes in "lab cakes," cakes shaped like DNA or test tubes or petri dishes. Despite the seeming-cliched "making lemondade out of lemons" plot, Hershman crafts an ending that is both fantastical and touching. "Sunspots" and "Rainstiffness" are equally imaginative and lovely.
Hershman's work is not the only part of The White Road that has a science bias: those enivro-friendly readers will be pleased to learn that, through an agreement with Eco-Libris, a tree will be planted for every copy of The White Road sold. Maybe Hershman will do well to same her follow-up The Green Road. Until then, this collection of stories will probably recycle through many people's libraries. I've certainly gone back to it many times.—Jen Michalski
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