Review: By Light We Knew Our Names - Anne Valente
Updated: Sep 9, 2018
Genre: Short Stories (Magical Realism) Published: Dzanc Books, sept. 2014
Rating: 4.5 stars
2018 is going to go down as the year where I reach a deeper level of appreciation for short stories. And with powerhouses like Jen Campbell, Kirsty Logan, Daisy Johnson and now Anne Valente entering my life, can you really blame me?
I have nothing but respect for people who can put pen to paper and create characters that feel lifelike, and convey feelings that so many of us have, but can’t express. For people who can create and sustain a world for hundreds of pages, to the point where that world is just as real to you as your own. Even more respect do I have for those people who can do this exact thing in a maximum of 20 pages. There is truly an art to sanding down your message, until nothing but the core remains.
The collection is woven together by themes of loss and grief, all explored through a lens of magical realism, which in my opinion is the perfect fit for both the theme and this format. I have mentioned before how grief is a topic that is close to my heart. For me personally, it’s the single most difficult experience to describe in words. At the risk of sounding woolly; it can be a tangible, almost physical presence in your life for years, yet remain unfathomable, and escape your ability to be grounded by mere words. At times it can seem to inhabit a reality of its own, as it can not belong in yours. This type of darker magical realism can sometimes be the most “true” way of describing that feeling, despite being fiction. Many of Anne Valente’s stories do exactly that. My personal favorites from this collection include Not for Ghosts or Daffodils (probably my favorite out of all of them), Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart and To the Place Where We Take Flight , all of which I would individually give 5 stars.
Unfortunately, this high level is not consistent throughout the collection. Overall, the second half felt was much stronger than the first. Some of the earlier stories, for example Dear Amelia and Terrible Angels were closer to two stars and brought down my total rating by half a star.
Despite those two stories, Valente’s prose is beautiful and she clearly has a lot of talent in this genre. Enough so that I feel like the stories that didn’t click with me still have the deeper layers to connect to other readers, or maybe to me at a different point in my life. This is collection has earned itself a permanent place on my shelf, and I can see myself coming back to this many times in the future.
Individual story ratings:
Dear Amelia: 2/5
To a Place Where We take Flight: 5/5
Terrible Angels: 2/5
A Taste of Tea: 3/5
Everything that Was Ours: 4/5
By Light We Knew Our Names: 4/5
If Everything Fell Silent, Even the Sirens: 4.5/5
A Very Compassionate Baby: 3/5
Not For Ghosts or Daffodils: 5/5
Until Our Shadows Claim Us: 3/5
Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart: 5/5
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