Picks and Pans Review: Stories

UPDATED 12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST


The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
By Yann Martel

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Like a precocious student who can't help showing off, Martel loads this short-fiction collection—written a decade before his Booker Prize-winning bestseller Life of Pi—with literary pyrotechnics. These three stories and a novella share the clever plotting and rich humanism that helped make 2002's Pi such a smash. But here they jostle with contrived conceits, as in "Manners of Dying," which features nine variations of a letter from a prison warden to the mother of a condemned man. But even when he's trying too hard to dazzle, Martel's storytelling talent shines through. "The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come" convinces us that an antique machine can produce mirrors from memories. And the title story has moments of heartrending authenticity; it tells of the friendship between two students, one dying of AIDS and the other trying to engage him by swapping tales about the fictitious Roccamatios, a multigenerational Italian family in Helsinki. As the illness progresses, Martel charts his character's descent with poignant precision. No fireworks are required.

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