Rebecca Makkai is already renowned for her books The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House. Her debut collection of short stories, Music for Wartime, will no doubt produce (and has already attained) similar acclaim. Makkai, a local author whose work has been published in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, is able to intricately weave stories together to present a compendium of tales that seem like a tribute to storytelling itself. There is a palpable need expressed in this collection for stories to be told, understood, digested, and passed on. In addition, three stories in the “legends” section are based on Makkai’s own family history in 1930s Hungary.
Some stories in this collection are little snippets, from only two pages, to overarching stories of seventeen pages long. There are stories that focus on a single moment (“A Bird in the House”) to stories that span multiple generations (“The Worst You Ever Feel”). The first story, “The Singing Women,” sets the tone. It’s a tale of war in an unknown country, with similarities to World War II with characters like “the dictator” and three surviving women. A composer is desperately trying to record the women’s language and songs, as they are the last known survivors of a dialect. The first story has the feel of a fairy tale, and the narrator confirms this at the end: “(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)”
Music for Wartime shows the power of storytelling in delicate and traumatic times. Narrators in this book include a boy coming to terms with his father’s past while playing a duet with a renowned Romanian violinist, and a narrator living in Chicago, trying to save a friend from inevitable failure, by having him perform at the Art Institute of Chicago. There is a desperation in these characters to tell these stories, to share them with anyone who will listen, either to relieve themselves from overwhelming guilt or to run away from, or rationalize, indescribable trauma.
Explaining and overcoming trauma is at the core of the story “Everything We Know About the Bomber” where the collective “we” narrator describes a man who committed a terrible crime. The details range from the obvious to the trivial. “He was someone’s son, and then he was not … He had a beard, and then he did not. His sister understood him, and then she did not.” The story becomes increasingly desperate, the narrators trying to explain the event to the reader as much as to themselves. “We plan to learn more. We plan to keep updated. We plan to look for patterns.” Makkai’s use of language and rhythm in this story makes it as poetic as it is emotionally jarring.
Music for Wartime is an impressive collection that focuses on the art of storytelling and the significance of history (both world history and personal/family history). Makkai expertly utilizes structure and pacing to make every word count. The two-page stories are just as powerful, arguably if not more so, than the expansive stories. This diverse collection will no doubt show audiences the need to learn and recognize history, the power of the short story form, and how important it is to pass these stories on.
June 2015, Viking
$26.95, hardcover, 240 pages
—Reviewed by Lyndsie Manusos