The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado
It has been quite a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories that so completely and consistently won me over. I’m typically satisfied if roughly half the stories in a collection work for me and thrilled if three-quarters do. But Brenda Peynado hit it out of the ballpark with The Rock Eaters, with stories that range almost entirely from good (a few) to excellent (most) to wonderfully, lingeringly strange and powerful (many). It’s easily the best story collection I’ve read in years, a must-read mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fabulist fiction, horror, and even a realistic story in there, with all the inherent blurring of genre lines those arbitrary categories convey. Think of a George Saunders or Kelly Link type of story, though Peynado is absolutely her own writer; there is nothing derivative here.
The book’s strengths are both plentiful and sharply honed. The premises are strikingly original and magnificently strange in ways that veer from endearing to horrifying. Emotional range is equally wide, presenting and also evoking poignancy, grief, anger, a deep sense of loss, sexual attraction, confusion, yearning, and more, with a concordant tonal spectrum as well, with some stories falling with a gentle softness onto the reader and others with bruising and sudden force, like a sharpened stone hurled with furious intent.
Many of the stories circle around the same themes/topics, including race, immigration, xenophobia, violence and desire (particularly adolescent), sometimes directly, sometimes through the use of metaphor or allegory, which themselves will run from the (purposely) blunt to the surreal and subtle.
Peynado’s prose is finely tuned and precise, as original as the premises, as sharp as the social commentary, and achingly lyrical in many a spot. And though endings are often a weak spot in short stories, Peynado delivers nearly every time, nailing her endings like Simon Biles at the end of a floor routine.
Normally at this point I’d add in some capsule descriptions / reactions to specific stories, but while that was my plan just a few minutes ago, as I wrote the above I’ve decided that I have no interest in ruining for the reader the joy of coming across each of Peynado’s wondrously weird and affective (and effective) tales, not in fear of mundane plot spoilers but because every reader should have the full enjoyment of coming face to face with each rich scenario cooked up in Paynado’s fertile imagination.
So instead, I’ll just end with declaring I am as sure that The Rock Eaters will be on my Best of 2021 list this year as I am that mine will be far from the only such list where it will appear.
I think as soon as my local bookstore opens I’ll be calling to order this.
A synchronistic aside–while you were reading a book called THE ROCK EATERS, I was reading a book about lichen, which eat rock.
I also loved that book too! (Assuming you mean Entangled Life)
Going on my TBR list!
I could learn something from you, Bill, when it comes to restraint as regards spoiling things for potential readers….
No! Sandy, you review historic works that have been in the culture for decades. Don’t change a thing!