Picks and Pans Review: Miracles in America

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sheila Kohler

It's hard to imagine a prose style fitting its subject more aptly than Kohler's does in this collection of short stories.

Her language is disquietingly vague, tantalizingly suggestive—like a painting done in pastels except for surprising streaks of dark, angry color. Her stories reflect a kind of genteel camouflage, with tenuous, polite behavior masking frustration and desire.

Most of Kohler's characters are lonely women; many are ill and/or emotionally marooned, such as a bedridden woman beset by a visitor's blather in "Mirror, Mirror." Many of the women have—or imagine—impersonal physical encounters with men. In "Permutations," a woman known as "S." is hired in an unspecific capacity by a couple, each of whom want her to spy on the other. One night, the man creeps into her room, or does he? He says that if she refuses his advances, "he does not know what he might feel obliged to do, not that he would want to hurt her, whereupon S. tells him to leave her alone, to go away and leave her alone, and turns to the wall and falls asleep, if she was not asleep before."

Two characters in the stories, both children, are literally deaf, and they accentuate the difficulties of communication everyone has. People often talk without saying anything, or at least without being heard.

These aren't stories for those whose tastes run to the action packed or clearly resolved. They're well suited, though, to a few minutes of contemplation on how hard it is to tell other people what we know and want, assuming, that is, that we can figure it out ourselves. (Knopf, $18.95)

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