Book Review: Days of Awe

Madeleine Kingsley enjoys a slice of contemporary American fiction


If you are not kept awake at night by A M Homes’s transgressive imagination, it will certainly have you reading past bedtime. Days of Awe, her new short-story collection, puts a surreal slant on everyday America and celebrates the psyche at its most bizarre: welcome to the dark, plastic places behind Disneyland, the restaurant that serves ten-calorie dishes, and the internet chat-room for budgerigar devotees.

Homes’s characters trawl their superficial world seeking meaning and repair. In The Last Good Time, a man revisits the world of Mickey Mouse, hoping to recapture the childhood wonder of the spinning teacups. Now, he sees queues for every ride and “Made in China” labels on the snow globes.

In Brother on Sunday, a fashionable cosmetic surgeon ponders his brief spell with a mercy medical mission as “a kind of spiritual recompense for the fortune that modern elective cosmetic procedures had brought”.

A Prize for Every Player is a satire on competitive shopping, in which a family turns the grocery shop into an off-screen game show with prizes for the most items piled high in the supermarket trolley and bonus points for anything on sale or covered by coupons. They leave the store with an unexpected extra — a baby left on top of the towels on Aisle Nine.

Can they afford it? “Practically speaking, everything we might buy for the baby has a 90-day return,” Tom reflects, “so, beyond the cost of diapers, bottles and formula it’s not going to cost us.”

“What about the price for heartache,” asks his wife.

In the space between vacuous posts about wing feathers and where to buy frozen hot-chocolate when visiting The National Cage-Bird Show, one particular site surfer spills secrets that really matter — the graphic consequences of IEDS (Improvised Explosive Devices), the death of his buddy and, ultimately, the loss of his own legs.

“Are there limb forests somewhere in Germany,” asks this random soldier.

Wreckage and redemption are trademark themes for Homes, explored with extra wit and profundity in her title story. Days of Awe is a Jewish gem about a genocide conference part-sponsored by an antidepressant manufacturer.

Here, two old friends — a war correspondent and (just fancy) a transgressive novelist — meet by chance after many years, make unlikely love (she’s gay and receives a parcel of chocolate penises Fedexed from her girlfriend back home) and play-act being an old Yiddish-speaking couple with ten kinder.

It is just before the High Holydays. In a small, local synagogue, they hear the rabbi ask what it is to be a Jew and whether that has changed over time.

“It is not about the size of one’s sin or one sin being greater than another,” he preaches, “but that we are all human and thus flawed, and only by recognising those flaws can we come to know ourselves.” The academic speakers on Holocaust issues ought to have heeded his words as they clash aggressively on issues of truth and history, and whether certain subjects are too sensitive to tell as fiction.

Attacked for writing an intentionally shocking Holocaust novel, the author observes that we “see ourselves more clearly through the stories we tell”. Through brilliantly biting stories like those of A M Homes, we do indeed.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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