Days of Awe by A M Homes - review: Sibling rivalries and psychosexual crises

Johanna Thomas-Corr

It's boom time for the American short story. Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person became a viral sensation for the New Yorker. Seemingly every hip novelist, from Joshua Ferris and Lauren Groff to Curtis Sittenfeld and Jeffrey Eugenides, has been turning out collections this year.

Not so long ago, if a novelist told their agent that they were working on short fiction, they could expect a fairly chilly reply. But whether due to the immediacy of the form, its responsiveness to moods and events, its conceptual purity or simply our shorter attention spans, booksellers report a surge in their popularity.

So it’s no surprise that A M Homes, author of 12 books including her electrifying, freewheeling, multi-award winning novel May We Be Forgiven, has chosen this moment to release a new set of short stories. What is baffling is why they’re so shallow and mundane. Homes has corralled together what appear to be 13 vestigial scraps of novels that never made it. It’s a collection badly in need of a brave editor and a big red pen. “‘How bad is it?’” one character asks. “‘Bad,’ I said. ‘Big bad?’ he asked. ‘Supersized,’ I said.”

The two opening stories, oddly, are the most lacklustre. Brother on Sunday is about two siblings — plastic surgeon Tom and dentist Roger — and their rivalry. May We Be Forgiven was also about two rival brothers. Here, Tom drinks champagne on the beach, bickers with his wife and gets a migraine just thinking about Roger’s unwelcome presence among his rich friends. It’s a familiar story of superficial lives that lacks depth and development.

Whose Story is it, and Why is it Always on Her Mind?, as with much of Homes’s fiction, unfolds from the therapist’s couch. A fraught tale about a woman who pushes rose thorns into the soles of her feet has a kernel of something interesting. Homes’s characters are alienated souls who yearn for connection, but this account of self-harming feels undercooked and whimsical.

The 50-page title story, about a fling between a war correspondent and a novelist at a conference on genocide, displays some of the dark wit we’ve come to appreciate from Homes: Holocaust jokes and penis chocolates, but the writing is flat and affectless.

A M Homes (Photo by Ray Tang/REX)

The National Cage Bird Show at least shows some formal daring: a soldier in the thick of battle converses with a rich Upper East Side girl in a chatroom for parakeet owners. The problem is that the author’s super-abundance of themes (military intervention, sexual assault, communication failure in an individualistic culture) need space to unfurl.

Too many of the other stories collapse into the same themes and archetypes. Hapless men wait for their lives to begin, women suffer psychosexual crises and middle-aged fools get sucked in by the promises of plastic surgeons, nutritionists and shrinks. I’m afraid nothing hooked me quite as much as Homes’s acknowledgements, which thank Roseanne Cash, Sandi Toksvig, celebrity restauranteur Andre Balazs, several rabbis and someone called Margot Tenenbaum, who may or may not be the fictional character from the Wes Anderson film. I was grateful for their compressed intrigue.

Days of Awe by A M Homes (Granta, £14.99), buy it here.