Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (review)

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories is a collection of short stories by the American author Edith Pearlman. I can’t recall exactly when I first heard of this writer, but it was a year or so after her collection won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (an American literary award) in 2011. Pearlman’s career in writing spans four decades and over 250 of her short stories have been published in magazines, literary journals, anthologies and online publications. I’ve often seen her described as one of literature’s best-kept secrets or undiscovered greats, but I’m so glad to have found her through this excellent collection of stories, published in the UK by Pushkin Press.

Binocular Vision contains a total of 34 stories, 13 of which are new to this collection. Many of the stories are set in the fictional suburb of Godolphin, Boston, but others take us to Central America, wartime London and Europe. We meet a young girl separated from her parents, lost in an unfamiliar place; a former US army officer returned from the Second World War, only to find himself battling against cancer; the owners of a second-hand toy shop, a couple who have experienced great sadness in their past – so many individuals, too many to mention here.

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Pearlman’s characters are distinctive, finely-sketched and utterly believable. She has a sharp eye for detail in her descriptions of people, settings and mood. In Settlers, the opening chapter alone gives us the sense that its lead character, Peter, is somewhat solitary and forlorn:

One early Sunday morning Peter Loy stood waiting for the bus downtown. It was October and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen-plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate, not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his height and thinness and longish hair he’d look like Sherlock Holmes when wearing it. Instead he looked like a dowager. (pg. 40, Pushkin Press) 

How skilfully Pearlman captures a scene in just a few sentences. In Home Schooling, two eleven year-olds observe a group of four girls who have just whirled into a pizza parlour:

They swept to the counter to order their pizzas. We studied their various backs (erect, round-shouldered, slim, bisected by a braid) and their various stances (jumpy, slouching, queenly, hands in back pockets) and their noses as they turned their profiles this way and that, and their languor or purpose as they visited the jukebox or ladies’ room, and their ease as they more or less assembled at their table, one always getting up for something, where are the napkins anyway, talking, laughing, heads together, heads apart, elbows gliding on the table. The girl with glasses – I was pretty sure her name was Jennifer, so many girls were Jennifers – sat in a way that was familiar to me, her right knee bent outward so that her right foot could rest on the chair, her left thigh keeping the foot in place like a brick weighing down a Christmas pudding. This position caused a deep satisfying cramp; I knew that pain. (pg. 234) 

Binocular Vision is a wonderful collection of beautifully-crafted, diverse stories, each one like a finely polished gem honed to perfection. Pearlman’s prose is superb; she writes with great compassion and insight into the human condition, and her work feels rich with meaning. Many of her narratives are quietly powerful, but with real emotional heft, too. I often found myself taking a little gasp or intake of breath while reading the collection. For example, in one of the early stories, a man is visiting the home of a couple he has recently met: 

Photographs lined the passageway from kitchen to bathroom. Snapshots, really, but blown up and matted in ivory and framed in sliver as if they were meant to hang in a gallery. All were of the same child – blond, light-eyed. At two she was solemn, in a draperied room, sharing a chair with a rag doll. At four she was solemn against the sea; this time the doll was a naked rubber baby. At six she smiled, clutching Raggedy Ann. At eight the girl with her Barbie stood straight as a stick in front of a constructed pond – could it have been the one at Luxembourg Garden? Slatted chairs, smoking pensioners, and a toy boat siling off to the right.

No further pictures.

He found himself unable to swallow. (pg. 107)

And yet there is rage, too. In Elder Jinks, a couple, Gustave and Grace, meet late in life and marry a few months later. On returning early from a business trip, Gustave discovers a different side of Grace’s character, one that disgusts him, and she leaves:

And surely he had been deranged to marry a woman because of her alluring eyes. He’d mistaken a frolicsome manner for lasting charm. She was merely frivolous, and the minute she was left unsupervised…He stomped into the living room. That rose-coloured garment in progress now shared its chair with a wine bottle, good vineyard, good year…empty. He’d like to rip the knitting out. The yarn would remain whorled; he’d wind it loosely into one big whorl. When she came back she’d find a replica of Faraday’s induction coil, pink. (pgs. 381-382)

The final story in the collection, Self-Reliance, is exceptional, and it contains one of the most astonishingly vivid and haunting passages I’ve ever read, anywhere. The protagonist is a retired gastroenterologist who has recently purchased a house by the water in New Hampshire. The woman’s daughter worries about her mother living on her own in the middle of nowhere, but to say anything else would spoil the narrative. In her excellent introduction to this collection, Ann Pratchett writes of giving two public readings of Self-Reliance – one at a literary event for the launch of a Best American Short Stories anthology and the other at a public library. One both occasions Pratchett brought the house down with Edith Pearlman’s Self-Reliance. Pratchett writes of this story:

Every word in every sentence was indispensable, every observation subtle and complex. The rhythm of the language carried the reader forward as much as the plot. Every time I thought I had mastered all of the nuances, the story offered up another part of itself to me, something quiet and undemanding that had been standing back and waiting for me to find it. (Introduction by Ann Pratchett)

If you haven’t already discovered Edith Pearlman, I hope I’ve managed to convince you to give her a try. Binocular Vision is a real treat, a collection I can see myself revisiting during the coming months.

Binocular Vision is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

21 thoughts on “Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (review)

  1. N@ncy

    In truth I just skimmed this review. I have had this book om my shelf for a long time, Within hand reach on the night table….but still unread. Now is the time, thanks for bringing it to my attention! I’ll read the review carefully after I finish the book!

    Reply
      1. N@ncy

        I’m rather new to the ‘short story’ world. I did read Molly Antopol ” The UnAmericans” and was impressed. I hope Edith can surprise me as well!

        Reply
  2. Max Cairnduff

    I’ll give it a try. I admit I tend to be resistant to New Yorker style stories, and:

    “Pearlman’s characters are distinctive, finely-sketched and utterly believable. She has a sharp eye for detail in her descriptions of people, settings and mood. ”

    sounds very New Yorker-y to me, but they do also sound very well written.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      They are very New Yorker-y, Max, and I’m sure one or two have been published there. I wonder if it’s worth you looking online (one or two of her stories might be available to read online) or possibly trying a kindle sample to see if she’s for you?

      Yes, it’s just shy of 400 pages…34 stories in all!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’m very convinced to try her – I keep reading great reviews, and basically I trust Pushkin Press! Another one for the wishlist!

    Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I have not read Edith Pearlman sounds but she like a great writer.

    I love the passages that you quoted. Her style seems matter of fact but there is a sense that a lot is going on underneath.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian – yes, very much so. I think these stories would stand up to repeat reading with more to give second time around. I loved her writing, and she’s definitely worth trying especially if you like short stories.

      Reply
  5. JaneGS

    I really like short stories and I really like great writing, and it sounds like this collection has both. Will put it on my wish list.

    Reply
  6. naomifrisby

    Excellent review, as always, Jacqui. I’ve had a copy of this since publication and you’ve made me want to dig it out and sod the rest of the TBR!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. Haha! There’s much to enjoy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on her stories. I read it in quite sizeable chunks, but it would be a good one for dipping into alongside other books.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Hi erdeaka. Yes, I loved this collection of stories, and Pearlman seems to have a real gift for inventing distinctive and very believable characters. She’s well worth investigating, especially if you like short stories.

      Reply
  7. Bellezza

    Pushkin Press publishes reliable good books from what I’ve read; I would ready anything they offer. While I don’t normally choose short stories, I can picture a disappointed man tearing the knitting out (his frustration was visceral) and you have me so intrigued about Self-Reliance I have to see how to get a copy of this book for myself. Ann Patchett is such a wonderful author herself, and for her to say that upon each new reread is a nuance in hiding is saying something. Thank you, Jacqui, for bringing this to my attention.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you for your comments, Bellezza, and I’m glad to have piqued your interest in Edith Pearlman and her stories. Yes, I’m also a fan of Pushkin Press; they do seem to have a very good track record, and this was one of the reasons for my taking a chance on Pearlman.

      I read Ann Patchett’s ‘Bel Canto’ about twelve years ago and thought it an excellent novel, but I haven’t read any of her others. She writes a very compelling introduction to the Pearlman (which also makes me think I ought to take another look at her work), and ‘Self-Reliance’ is quite something!

      If you don’t usually go for short stories, it might be worth checking if any of Pearlman’s stories are available online. I think The New Yorker may have published one or two of them?

      Reply
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