TITLE: You Will Meet A Stranger Far from Home: wonder stories
AUTHOR: Alex Jeffers
196 pages, Lethe Press, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 9781590211038
DESCRIPTION: (from Amazon): From the acclaimed author of Safe as Houses and The Abode of Bliss, ten wondrous tales of yesterday, today, and tomorrow--of our familiar world and others. An American teenager meets Adonis on a sailing cruise off the coast of Turkey. A merchant of the Silk Road encounters an odd dog--and a brother--from another world. An old lady on a distant planet attempts to help her great-grandson grow up in a world that will soon forget women ever existed. A Massachusetts boy refuses an offer to visit fairyland. Another American teenager on vacation encounters three fallen angels and is transformed. Alex Jeffers's first collection of fantastical stories is a treacherous box of delights.
MY RATING: Four out of five stars
MY THOUGHTS: The stories in Jeffers’ 2012 collection run the gamut from full-on fantasy to stories that feel like they have almost no speculative element at all. Some take place in our recognizable “real” world and some in realms of purest imagination. Some have concrete resolutions and some leave the reader, and characters, wondering what just happened or what comes next. What the stories have in common is Jeffers’ style – a style that explicates the commonalities of the lived gay experience across national and religious borders even while keying in on the individual differences that make each of our stories unique. We’ve all felt the thrill of first interest, the sting of unrequited love and first rejection, the fear that our families will not accept who we are, the wish that we could literally and permanently alter the world around us to be (or escape to a world that already is) safer for us than the one we know. Jeffers melds these commonalities, in a number of these stories, to specifically middle-eastern mythology and history, and he wrote these stories just long enough ago that he might have been on the leading edge of the current push to expand fantasy outside of the traditional Western European trappings and tropes.
“Wheat, Barley, Lettuce, Fennel, Salt for Sorrow, Blood for Joy” is one of the stories in the book that has a fantasy aspect so subtle I’m still not sure the author even intended it. An American teenage boy is on a sailboat cruise where he encounters a startingly beautiful Turkish young man among the small crew. It’s a story of infatuation and the struggle to know whether the man you’re attracted to is also gay, it’s a story about coming of age, about navigating other cultures’ norms, about communication. All of these strands weave together to make a wonderful story. There are some dream sequences implied to be more than just dreams, and there’s the possibility the Turkish man is a literal “living legend” from the past, but those hints of the fantastic neither added to nor detracted from the story. “Turning,” about a cast-out young middle eastern man who turns tricks to survive but also gets swept up in the feverish turns of a Dervish dance performance, hinges more on the broken relationships of the protagonists’ past than it does on any possibility that the Dervishes’ dance is in any way actually magical. “The Arab’s Prayer” likewise felt lacking in a speculative element (other than the speculation that eventually same-sex marriage will be legal everywhere in the world).
“Firouz and His Brother” and “Haider and His Dog” are inter-connected stories with a clear narrative through-line that starts with trader Firouz’s discovery of a baby in the wilderness, the titular brother (Haider), defended by an obviously special dog. The action in the first story is clearly in our own world’s past, while the latter moves into a fantasy world that may, if I picked up the clues correctly, also be the world featured in “Then We Went There,” but even in the real-world story the fantasy element is fully realized and key to the story. Gender fluidity is at the core of two of these three stories, as are themes of love and sacrifice. I found myself hoping that neither Firouz’s nor Haider’s stories are really over but have no idea if the author has ever returned to these characters either in the real-world setting or in the fantasy world. “Tattooed Love Boys,” about a girl’s visit to a mysterious tattoo parlor of behalf of her shy older brother, also hinges on changing genders through magical means. It’s the final story in the book and perhaps the strongest in terms of feeling complete and satisfying for both the reader and the characters.
"Jannicke’s Cat" is the one science fiction tale in the collection, dealing with life on a colony planet where something has happened to prevent the birth of female children. Women are dying out, and one of the last few remaining is dealing with family loss and cultural shift. Jannicke is in a situation that mirrors how drastically life has changed for people born in the early 1900s who lived to see the early 2000s, feeling left behind, anachronistic, but still wanting to contribute something to the future of her world. “Liam and the Wild Fairy” is the only story in the collection I had previously read, and this revisit in the context of the rest of the connection really brought out the themes of found family and being comfortable with who we are versus who we were born as.
One note that did not affect the number of stars I gave the book. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Relph. I loved Relph’s voice; smooth and warm (and sensual when appropriate), inviting you into each story and into each new character. But there were some editing choices that stuck out to me – the primary one being in the story “Turning,” where distinct breaks between scenes of the present, recent past, and legend needed to be clearer that they were. I had a hard time following the story because the clear breaks indicated by the story were not present in the audio format.