In Jerusalem’s Old City a young priest and a dominatrix converse in the dying light; on Oregon’s windswept coast a fragile woman discovers a body washed up on the beach after a storm; and in Postwar Japan a young protege watches his master’s corpse burn, with bitter thoughts blazing in his mind. An eclectic collection of thirteen short stories…
I do love it when I am approached by publishers offering me books that take me outside of my comfort zone, as they so often provide some magical reading experiences. Jerusalem Ablaze is one such example, as I rarely read short stories of any description. So it was with a wonderfully blank mental slate that I dived into this intriguing collection…
Orlando Ortega-Medina has produced a remarkable volume of stories that are not only far reaching in terms of location, but also in the very recognisable aspects of human emotion he weaves into his character’s individual experiences. Across the stories, he addresses the themes of love, death, ageing, sexuality, family conflict and obsession with an intuitive and engaging style, that at times brings the reader up short to truly sit up, and think about what they have just read. For the purposes of this review, and so as not to mar your discovery of all the stories in this collection, I just wanted to write a few words on a couple of the stories that made me sit up and think too.
In a guest post at Reader Dad, Ortega- Medina talks about his experience of writing short stories, and makes reference to After The Storm, my particular favourite in the book, and the number of revisions he made to it, right up until the point of submission to his publisher. This story runs to about 18.5 pages, but to me encompassed the emotional breadth and detail of a book many times this length. Focussing on a woman’s chance discovery of something on a beach (no spoilers here), Ortega-Medina constructs a story that is heart-rending and thought provoking, on the breaks in communication, and loss of awareness that occurs in many personal relationships. The story is darkly strange but underscored by an innate feeling of truth and observation that takes hold of the reader, and even in the aftermath of reading reoccurs in one’s thoughts. Susan’s actions seem so totally alien and discomforting at first, but when seen through the eyes of others, are imbued with a real sense of poignancy. Also, the author’s depiction of this wild coastline where Susan and her husband dwell in their secluded lighthouse, is described with such clarity that you can sense the thrashing sea spray, the keening of the gulls, and the smell of the seaweed. Perfect compacted prose that reveals a world of emotion.
The intensity of Susan’s experience set against the broad, unending landscape of the natural world is mirrored in Star Party, where the theme of human relationships is played out beneath a huge expanse of sky where people have gathered to star watch. I like the way that Ortega-Medina transposes the small but intense insecurities and problems of his protagonists against this broad canvas, which puts our relative importance in the universe in perspective, but never lessening the real concerns of his characters’ lives. Equally, in The Shovelist, the financial security of an old man and his wife is seen to be dependent on the coming of the snow, and his neighbour’s willingness to pay him to shovel their driveway, a fairly humdrum problem you would think, but one that in the author’s hands, explores community and the realisation of, and sympathy for, other’s troubles.
As much as every story works in this collection as a self contained tale, the two part story of An Israel State of Mind had me wanting more. Narrating the events of a young man and his girlfriend’s trip to a kibbutz, I loved this tale of pent up emotion and unresolved love, the exploration of difference and misunderstanding, all within the framework of a shared, and what should be a life affirming experience. I think it’s a real feat of Ortega-Medina’s writing that he so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters in this story and others, when whole books can pass you by without this essential connection as a reader. I still want to know what happens to these characters beyond what is written here.
So as a non-widely read short story reader, I gained much from Jerusalem Ablaze, and it has honestly awakened an appreciation of the form for me. An alternately dark, emotional, tender, and violent contemporary collection that I enjoyed greatly. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Cloud Ledge Books for the ARC)
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