Staff Pick: Dark Continent and Other Stories

Dark Continent and Other Stories

by Laura Kalpakian

(Viking Press)

A British lawyer — damaged in the Great War, living in a sort of "sexual Switzerland: tidy, cold, neutral" — is sent to find a woman whose beauty sends admirers into cotton-mouthed longing

A grieving mother watches cartoons and game shows with her dead son's photograph turned toward the TV, refusing to share her grief with her daughter-in-law, until they're struck with fresh sorrow.

A spinster develops a passionate interest in a 200-year-old cookbook, while building a fantasy marriage around an imaginary husband named Julian.

These are just a few of the marvelously odd characters that people the pages of Dark Continent and Other Stories by Laura Kalpakian. The recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, and a PEN/West Award for Best Short Fiction, Kalpakian has penned a dozen novels (including Graced Land, about a welfare mother sustained by her love for Elvis) and three short-story collections. Her protagonists pursue their peculiar lives in various times and locales, but most often in the California desert town of St. Elmo, "where the wind slices like a hot blade."

In the title story "Dark Continent," Colin French finds himself in St. Elmo in search of Africa Benn, whose mother named her brood of eight children after faraway places in hopes they'd eventually travel there, and has papered the walls of her ramshackle dwelling with postcards and tattered photos of castles and cathedrals.

Africa's charms once besotted a fabulously wealthy British lord, who upon his death, and much to the chagrin of French's client, has left Africa — and the daughter he fathered — a handsome settlement. Lawyer French, who is handling the lord's estate, is crippled physically and emotionally by trench warfare, but his cool facade is ultimately shattered by the friendship he develops with a man who also loved Africa. Regular Kalpakian readers will recall Dr. Lucius Tipton, who appears in many of the author's works, and the skeleton named Blanche that hangs behind his desk; her bones "rattle in anticipation" when Tipton pours himself and his thirsty guest a welcome drink of whiskey in these Prohibition times.

With Tipton's help, French finds Africa's child, but — finally recognizing that her mother was not a whore, and that he himself is not "without passion or pride" — he refuses to send the child away to relatives who despise her.

In "A Christmas Cordial," which takes us to late-twentieth-century London, 75-year-old Louisa Wyatt enjoys her Victorian mansion, though most of its rooms echo emptily, and her part-time job at the old Explorers' Club, though its aging membership is failing. But she finds sublime satisfaction in poring over the ancient cookbook of Lady Anne Aylesbury, whose world she comes to appreciate in a microwave-driven society. Louisa's friends know she's a bit dotty; after all, she fabricated a husband with whom she chats each lonely evening and imagines that "miscreant merrymakers" once reveled in her yard, leaving behind the youth for which she yearns. But they love her anyway, not least of all for the Christmas cordial (Lady Anne's own recipe) that she bottles and bestows as gifts each year. So when Louisa doesn't show up for the club's annual Christmas party, friends send the police to investigate. Clues to her final transcendent hours — desperate yet strangely exalted— are hinted at in the upstairs windows.

Elegantly written, brimming with hope, heartache, and hilarity, and full of characters who are both vulgar and virtuous, Dark Continent is worth not one but many readings.

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