The pleasure for me in reading E. Lily Yu’s collection of short stories, Jewel Box, was sourced in two of the book’s elements: its what-if premises and its, well, jewel-like language, which glittered precise and edged as any gemstone in a Tiffany’s case. The plots and characters, meanwhile, were more hit and miss for me, which is why I’m not giving it a five.
As is typical for collections, the individual stories varied in their impact, with my marginal notes ranging from “lovely” or “delightful” to “meh” (mostly due to predictability or being a bit too obvious/on the nose).” But even in those stories that did very little for me as stories, the language was always captivatingly startling, so I feel pretty confident in saying everyone should read this collection for those delightful startling points and beautifully honed sentences.
A few specifics on a few of my favorites:
“The Lamp at the Turning” — This story, of a sentient streetlight who falls in love with “a young man in a red jacket … his fluttering damp hair and fluted ears and how he held himself with the careful gravity of the young pretending to be old”, is one of those “lovely” ones I mentioned — brief and moving and poignant and with a killer close.
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” — In premise, tone, and language, this one reminded me of no one other than Italo Calvino, one of my favorite authors. Here’s the opening sentence: “For longer than anyone could remember, the village of Yiwei had won, in its orchards and under its eaves, clay-colored globs of paper that hissed and fizzed with wasps.” And here’s the story’s precipitating move a few paragraphs later: “In this way it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.” I’m already all in on the story, and that’s before the nest folded into a paper boat, wasp wars of expansion, bee ambassadors, and an apian exploration of imperialism.
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” — When Vivian, Julia’s best friend and love of her life is at death’s door from cancer, Julia seeks out the unicorn that may or may not reside in Central Park in hope of using its horn to cure her. One of my favorites of the collection, if a little over-long.
“The Eve of the Planet of Ys” — Another favorite, a melding of Lu’s usual fabulistic voice and peak pulp sci fi/dying Earth atmosphere as “In its latter days, the two blessed suns of the planet of Ys grew twice as large and dully red [so] There was no true day or not on Ys, but a long thin dusk when both suns burned, followed by a dim and feverish evening when one or the other had set.”
“The No-One Girl and the Flower of the Farther Shore” — And another favorite, perhaps my number one in the book, focusing on an orphan girl, an indifferent village, an amoral butcher boy, and a story that goes off in an unexpected and lovely direction
“The Cat’s Tale” — a deft melding of several familiar old tales that feels right at home amongst old folk/fairy stories thanks as much to the voice as its use of said stories.