Book Review: Black Glass by Karen Joy Fowler

I’ve noticed a trend this year where I seem to be reading a lot of really amazing women writers. Karen Joy Fowler is certainly no exception, as I’ve been a longtime fan of her work. As a love letter to Janeites everywhere, I immediately became enamored with The Jane Austen Book Club. My next experience was the exquisite short story collection, What I Didn’t See and Other Stories. What really impressed me about Fowler’s writing was how she was able to borrow from so many different genres in order to create such a brilliant and near perfect mix of thought-provoking tales. But years before these works, Fowler crafted another wonderful collection, showcasing her gifts of engaging voices and provocative storylines. Black Glass: Short Fictions, first released in 1998, contains fifteen devilishly inventive tales featuring some of the best female protagonists of contemporary literature.

Black Glass (1998) by Karen Joy Fowler (and Zephyr), Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

My copy of Black Glass is the 2015 updated edition containing a preface from the author. While sometimes I gain nothing from these expanded works, I really enjoyed Fowler’s thoughts on this collection. This is a writer who gravitates towards the fraught relationships between children and their fathers, but who also has a fondness for “The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Syndrome” – a concern for those peripheral, and often, misplaced characters. These are the forgotten, whether from fiction, history, or even within families. Within the pages of Black Glass, you’ll find women on the margins of society, emotionally-absent fathers and women frustrated by their relationships with men.

The opening and longest story of this collection, appropriately titled “Black Glass,” demonstrates that someone on society’s periphery doesn’t mean she’s of no consequence. I keep a writing journal for notes about each of the books I read, and for this one, I wrote in big bold letters, I NEED TO RESEARCH CARRY NATION! It’s true, as I didn’t remember anything about this historical figure. Carry Nation was an American temperance advocate, known for using a hatchet to demolish barrooms. I highly encourage you to read about this woman, as she is quite fascinating! In Fowler’s title story, Nation has been resurrected as a zombie who continues her crusade for modern times, destroying a Florida pub to shouts of, “You are Satan’s bedfellow. You maker of drunkards and widows.” DEA agent Patrick Harris, who takes being browbeaten to a totally new level, is assigned the mission of stopping zombie Nation. It’s worth mentioning that when his wife asks him to name a historical heroine other than Carry Nation, Harris clearly struggles. All I’m saying is this story needs to be made into a movie, preferably with Nicolas Cage in the role of the inept Harris. If this happened, I would be the happiest boy in the world!

This isn’t the only story to have real-life historical figures as protagonists. “Shimbara” is based on a 1637 rebellion in Japan, with a fifteen-year-old boy who can walk on water leading the rebels against Bakufu forces. “Lieserl” was one of my favorites in this collection, focusing on Einstein’s daughter who was believed to have died within her first year of life. What truly made this tragic tale such a work of genius was how Fowler played with the concept of time, while also capturing the life of a man who loved his daughter but loved science more.

Fowler’s ability to distort time went completely over my head with “The Elizabeth Complex,” a tale that merges famous Elizabeths throughout history and their convoluted relationships with their fathers. This one may have been too clever, as I got lost rather quickly. In “Go Back,” Fowler examines a series of disasters that befall a small town in Indiana overlapping a young child’s discovery that her father may be having an affair. Fowler is saying that whether a disaster is natural or of one’s own making, the effects can often be irreversible.

For those of you that enjoy stories about frustrated women navigating the pitfalls of romance, well this collection contains some must-read gems. “Letters from Home” is written as a series of letter from a 1960’s campus radical to an ex-boyfriend about her activities during the Vietnam War. “The View from Venus: A Case Study,” focuses on a group of students from the future studying present-day courting as though they were reading a Jane Austen novel. “Lily Red” was another favorite, which takes the idea of the sacrificial maiden and flips it on its head.

Karen Joy Fowler, Photo Credit: Brett Hall Jones

I would be amiss if I did not mention “The Faithful Companion at Forty.” Told from the point-of-view of The Lone Ranger’s trusty (and often overlooked) sidekick, this story is Fowler at her most humorous but also one of the saddest. The same can also be said of “The Travails,” a story told from the point-of-view of Mrs. Gulliver, who is strapped with the duties of home and children while her husband goes off on another adventure. Many writers are great at wit, but without wisdom, the message can often be lost. Fortunately, Black Glass explodes with insight. I’ll be returning to Fowler again, I promise, as her stories are beautiful miniatures that speak of larger worlds that while frightening, are full of wonders.

“Sometimes we can find a smaller world where we can live, inside the bigger world where we cannot.”-“The Brew”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

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