Separated into two parts, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” the first half of Sofia Samatar’s short story collection Tender is the strongest. Of the first ten of the twenty total stories, “Selkie Stories Are For Losers,” “Honey Bear,” and “How I Met The Ghoul” are the best, with the other seven have their own flashes of greatness.
“Selkie Stories” and “Honey Bear” take place in worlds much like our own. The former tells a touching coming of age story of friendship/romance and loneliness that is grounded in reality in all ways except the existence of Selkie’s, mythological creatures that take the form of women by shedding their skin, but return to their seal form once it is returned to them. In the latter, there is a sense of ominousness from the beginning: a mother, daughter, and father are on a road trip where everyone seems on edge. But the feeling could be explained away by marital problems, and health issues, and over-protection of their young daughter. But then there are checkpoints they must cross and the mother and daughter seem strangely elated by their dreary beach destination. And then a terrifying encounter on the beach reveals that the world the story is taking place in is nothing like our own. Samatar has written a monster story where the monsters are a constant reminder of innocence lost, and asks if the memories and love that remain are worth the inevitable horror.
“How I Met The Ghoul,” conversely, is a story that is fantastical from the start. Short, inventive, haunting, and silly. A journalist is given an opportunity to interview one of the potentially few or many ghouls that have ravaged the planet. The ghoul is ugly and terrifying in appearance, but self-deprecating and forthright in personality. Its purpose in life is to destroy and goes about it with a biblical dedication. The flood ravaged the world, so do you blame the flood or look for its causes?
“Tender Landscapes” falters under the weight of Samatar’s storytelling ambitions. Her narratives become less focused and contained, more sprawling and experimental. She takes more risks, the story worlds labyrinthian in their layers. It’s hard to fault her for these developments, but nonetheless the stories only leave fleeting impressions, flashes of brilliance and magnificence of vision that sadly never feel fully realized.
The stories that reveal this transition are: the nearly incomprehensible “A Brief History of Nonduality Studies,” in which the title fully prepares you for the story itself, a Borgesian meta-history that is disorientating labor to decipher; and “An Account of the Land of Witches,” another sometimes fascinating but mostly infuriating narrative of stories within stories where an intriguing world is stifled by perspective changes that lead you further into the dark right when you had started to getting accustomed to where you were going.
Strongest of the second half are “Tender” and “Fallow.” “Tender” is the first story of the second part, and is one of the best in the entire collection. In what appears to be the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, the narrator is a Tender, someone whose job and, ultimately, entire existence is spent isolated in quarantine zones testing nuclear fallout. It is a story of grief and the consequences of abandoning everything in the face of loss. Samatar fits so much power and emotion into such a confined space, and it’s one of the last stories in the collection that achieves this.
“Fallow” is one of the final stories, and by far the longest. Set on a world that could be Earth after social and environmental collapse, but is revealed to be on another planet entirely. Framed as the written account of a woman, Agar, trying to produce a work that her people will deem worthy of archiving (everything written must be submitted, and everything not archived is “pulped”). Her account covers her childhood and adolescence and focuses on relationships with the people who changed her life: the strange teacher Miss Snowfall who teaches her the beauty of imagination in the midst of a cold world; Brother Lookout, a Young Evangelist who committed his life to the cause of helping the people of Earth (Earthmen, used as a gender neutral), which proves fatal in the Fallow’s society of paranoia and self-preservation; and Agar’s sister, Temar, who gets a job in the mysterious Castle where people perform ambiguously economical functions for unknown purposes. Temar discovers a Earthman in the tunnels of the Castle, and sees him and his ship as a chance of escape.
Samatar’s rich imagination reacts well to “Fallow”‘s extended length, the increasing complexity of her narratives needing the extra room to breathe. Her jumping from following the various figures in Agar’s life feel less abrupt than the perspective changes in other stories, and she is able to flesh out the narratives more fully. However, the one main flaw of “Fallow” is that every character Agar encounters is far more compelling than she is. It left me feeling that the story would have been stronger as three different narratives fully focusing on Miss Snowfall, Brother Lookout, and Temar instead as a frame device confined by the mostly passive involvement of Agar. Frankly, I would have much preferred an entire story following her much more fascinating sister, Temar.
Reading Tender as a chronological progression of Samatar’s style, it’s a shame to see her move away from the early stories where haunting and beautiful depths are revealed within tantalizingly simple setups. But as her stories get more complicated, you can feel her yearning for more, and you feel that she’s getting closer. “Fallow” is roughly 60 pages, it has the scope of a novel, and, in spite of its problems, or even because of them, would likely have worked better as one. Samatar has a wonderful mind, her imagination is such a vibrant mix of styles and cultural influences. Her stories reminded me at turns of Borges and Kafka, her fascination with labyrinths and stories within stories, and the chillingly efficient and parasitic Castle. However, she is never quite as cold and despairing as those two masters. Her tales often revolve around children, or young adults clinging to what’s left of their youthful innocence. They use storytelling as an escape from the cruelty of the world, and while sadness permeates her work, it is overpowered by a sense of wonder.
Having not read her two novels yet, and only going by this collection, I will still venture to say it seems she has reached the point as a writer where the short form can no longer contain her ideas. I hope she embraces where her imagination is taking her, and look forward to what she does next.