Thursday, October 31, 2013

At the Mouth of the River of Bees - Kij Johnson

For the inaugural post on H&MLTR, I’m going to review Kij Johnson’s collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.  I read her novel The Fox Woman a few years ago and loved it, so I was excited to come across more of her work.  She often writes about Heian Japan, which is a fascinating time period and culture.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees shows Kij Johnson’s depth and breadth as a writer.  I found every one of the stories included original, creative, and engaging.  Four of the stories reflect her interest in Heian Japan and other Asian cultures (“Fox Magic,” “Chenting, in the Land of the Dead,” “The Empress Jingu Fishes, “ and “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”).  Many of the stories involve animals.  But those are about the only similarities I can find.  The settings of the stories range from the real world, to ancient Earth societies, to totally invented fantasy worlds.  The tone, voice, and structure of each story is different; some read like fairy tales, one reads like a Edwardian gentleman’s diary, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is almost a novella. 

Synopses of a couple of my favorites from this collection (it was hard to choose):

  • “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” – Aimee inherits a monkey act from a random stranger.  Twenty-six monkeys of varying ages, sizes, and species perform tricks in the show, with the finale being all of them piling into a bathtub and disappearing.  The monkeys reappear after every show, trailing into the tour bus where they and Aimee live.  Where do the monkeys go?  How do they get back? 

  • “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is the story of a young cat living in ancient Tokyo.  After her home is destroyed by one of the great Tokyo fires, she sets out on the Tokaido, the great road that ran from Tokyo all the way to the northernmost prefecture of ancient Japan, looking for a new one.  It’s a charming little adventure story, convincingly told from a cat’s perspective.

  • Finally, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” tells the story of an engineer sent to a rural area of his country to build a bridge over a river of mist.  There’s a water river below the mist, but the mist dissolves everything it touches except the fish that live in it.  This long story chronicles his slow absorption into the community of the area, the building of the bridge, and the effects that the bridge has on both sides of the river.  I can’t even really say what struck me so much about it; it was just a charming and well-written story.  I didn’t realize how much longer it was than the other stories in this book until I looked back at the table of contents and noticed the page numbers.

There are few short story collections that I can honestly say I like every single story in.  This is one of them.  I recommend it with no reservations.

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