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Usually I'm all in favor of not reading too much about books before starting them. In this case, though, I wish I'd noted ahead of time that these are paired short stories. Each story overlaps just enough with its partner to cast a skewed light, ever so slightly warping and twisting what you thought you knew about the characters or their situation.

Sadly, I was slow to catch on to this pattern. Having never encountered a paired short story collection, I assumed all the stories in the book were linked, and thus wasted a fair amount of energy looking for repeating characters throughout the book. I should have recognized Rao had adopted a straightforward, rigid structure for the collection, because the stories themselves are so well-organized and perfectly contained. That's probably not a sexy way to describe a short story, but it appeals immensely to my concrete-sequential brain. Rao also wisely limits herself thematically by focusing the entire collection on one historical event: Partition—when, in 1947, India and Pakistan were divided by a line on a map into two distinct countries.

I couldn't help but compare Rao's collection with another I read recently, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. If Oyeyemi's stories are like overgrown gardens that require a reader to bushwhack her way out (beautiful but oh-so-thorny!), Rao's stories are like perfectly smooth glass paperweights, plenty hefty but complete in themselves. I loved both collections, but upon reflection, they really could not be more different.

This is already one of my favorite books of the year: hard but redemptive in theme, spare and precise in style. Rao has a mysterious way of making her characters immediately knowable—a few lines in and you're right with her, waiting with wide eyes to see what will happen to them. And I know people say this all the time, but I can't believe this is a debut.

With regards to Flatiron Books and Goodreads for the review copy, which I was lucky enough to win in a recent giveaway. On sale now!

Find it at your library!

Reading Helen Oyeyemi is like working out with a friendly but very aggressive personal trainer. At some point, you’re going to find yourself splayed out on the mat, panting like an animal and protesting that it’s too hard, you can’t do one more set. And then she'll blow her whistle in your face and cheerfully scream at you to get a move on.

In much the same way as a good, hard workout eventually leads to an endorphin-fueled breakthrough, Oyeyemi’s short stories eventually clarified for me, and what began as a veins-bulging effort relaxed into a steady rhythm that I could keep pace with. Oyeyemi will never let you get comfortable, but if you strap on your weight belt and bring the intensity, her brand of magical realism will slowly coalesce into something you can hold, loosely, if not fully grasp.

I’m not a big re-reader, but this collection seems ripe for revisiting. In fact, when I finished the first story, “Books and Roses,” I flipped right back to the beginning and started again, convinced I’d missed something. I still don’t know if I did or not, even after reading it through twice. Oyeyemi is slippery that way. I wish I had encountered books like this in my college English curriculum—I think it would have totally floored me to read about the world as it actually is, as opposed to how it was, for privileged white men, hundreds of years ago. And yes, I realize the strangeness of referring to Oyeyemi as a realist when her work is so clearly fantastical, but her characters—these are people I recognize, that are real, that could exist somewhere and have something important to say, even though history up to this point has told them in no uncertain terms that they are insignificant due to their gender or skin tone or sexuality, and therefore not worthy of a voice.

With regards to Riverhead and Goodreads for the beautiful (deckle-edged! What?!) advance copy, which I was lucky enough to win in a recent giveaway. On sale tomorrow, March 8!