Ideally, each piece is carefully constructed as a miniature whole and arranged in such a way as to vary pace and mood, giving expression to human emotion without the luxury and lavishness of a full orchestra.
If this analogy holds, then Sheila Kohler, author of Stories From Another World , proves herself a master of the short story.
In a style that is at once ethereal and evocative, she creates an atmosphere in which the themes of fate and circumstance, fidelity and betrayal, imprisonment and escape resonate.
South African-born, now living in New York, Kohler draws on her upbringing for many of the stories but is not limited by it. Indeed, the settings range from the moneyed homes of Johannes- burg and Durban to the romanticized locations of rural France or Rome at Easter. Landscape provides a backdrop for Kohler's stories, but the interior life of her characters is what matters to her most.
Her stories are told by narrators who often have melancholic voices. These characters must deal with an instant when something happens that completely alters all that came before -- the death of a child, an accident, a shocking revelation or simply the exercising of choice.
In this respect, the collection picks up on the theme of Kohler's acclaimed novel Cracks , the brooding story of a group of adolescent girls at a convent boarding school where something terrible happens.
At the time of publication, Cracks was likened to Picnic at Hanging Rock for Kohler's ability to create a sense of impending disaster amid the burgeoning yet repressed sexuality of an all-girls' school.
Similarly, in these stories, Kohler leads the reader down dreamlike avenues before shattering the calm with events of such cataclysmic violence that they are profoundly shocking. She uses this effect particularly explosively in Baboons , when a husband reveals to his wife that he is in love with a man.
Elsewhere in the collection, Kohler's preoccupations are more subtle, particularly when dealing with the themes of entrapment and escape. She manages to convey a palpable sense of the circumstances that threaten to stifle her subjects.
This collection makes for a satisfying whole, each story urging the reader on to the next until the last page has been turned, leaving only lingering aftertones.
Or perhaps the analogy should not be that of an unaccompanied cello suite as a box of chocolates -- definitely the bittersweet variety.