Yard Sale by Charles Hibbard

Posted by Paul Samael on Monday, December 27, 2021 Under: Book reviews

This beautifully written book - available for free on Smashwords - occupies a not particularly well-colonised fictional space somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories.  

It’s like a novel in the sense that it depicts various episodes in the life of one character, Ruth, who was born - I am guessing - at some point in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  We first meet Ruth in (late) middle age, having gone on a solo road trip to escape marital difficulties - but with one brief exception later on, this is the only episode where the narrative is primarily from her point of view.  Subsequent chapters provide “snapshots” of her world at different times in her life, but always from the perspective of others who knew her - such as her father (this chapter is set when Ruth was a child), a childhood friend (who’s a guest at Ruth’s wedding), her husband (just after they are married - and then again in old age) and several other characters whose paths happen to have crossed with hers at various junctures.  

And this is where the book feels more like a collection of connected short stories - because each individual episode is so well crafted that it could equally well stand alone, as a work of art in its own right, without needing to be part of a bigger whole.  In fact, some of them have already stood on their own in a previous collection, The Inelegant Universe, reviewed here (more on that overlap below).  

Charles Hibbard is also an accomplished poet and perhaps that explains his preference for carefully crafted shorter pieces - rather than a grand, sweeping narrative that follows Ruth through every stage of her life.  Poets making forays into prose are sometimes criticised for focussing too much on description and not enough on telling a good story - but I didn’t feel that was a problem here.  The first chapter effectively poses the question “what’s gone wrong in Ruth’s life - and in particular with her marriage?”  The desire to find out more about Ruth, combined with the quality of the writing, was what kept me reading - and we do get some answers to the questions posed in that first chapter (for example, although we only get three relatively brief glimpses of Ruth’s husband, Peter, that's enough to give you a pretty good idea of how and why things didn’t go entirely to plan on that front).

Overall, are these satisfying answers?  Well, here there is a risk that some readers may come away feeling slightly frustrated - and I felt this a bit myself.  There’s a sense at the end that Ruth has often been under-appreciated or taken for granted in her life and this seems to be continuing right into her old age - so as a reader, you almost want the author to make up for this injustice by putting her more at the front and centre of the narrative (as opposed to portraying her somewhat obliquely, through the eyes of others).  Added to that, the stories are so successful in taking you into different parts of Ruth’s world that sometimes you end up wanting to spend more time there (or to have more chapters to help fill in more of the “blanks” in her life). 

But then again, maybe it’s only fitting that the book leaves it to us to fill in those blanks - and to do otherwise would fail to acknowledge the true depth and complexity of any individual’s experience.  Now, that last sentence is something of a “grand statement” made without much in the way of explanation - so let me just “unpack” it a bit, using one of the episodes in Yard Sale to help:

In chapter 6, one of the characters (who’s an astronomer) discusses the claim by proponents of quantum string theory that there are 7 or 8 hidden (“rolled up”) dimensions which humans can’t perceive.  He then uses that concept to describe the occupants of a nursing home for the elderly:  

"They’re like evening blossoms folding inward for the night; and there’s a sense that all kinds of dimensions of their lives are now rolled up and hidden away: childhood, love affairs, marriage or singledom, parenthood, professional competence, music, sports, art, politics – many more than 10 or 11. Some of the bodies themselves are coiling inward as though for them even the final three spatial dimensions are in the process of closing up shop. The ruthless fourth, Time, keeps cantering along, of course." 

So maybe it is inevitable that some (perhaps even most) dimensions of Ruth’s world remain out of sight at the end - except, of course, in our imaginations.  But as I’ve remarked before on this blog, for me, that is one of the under-appreciated aspects of short stories - that good ones often prompt you to imagine what might have been if the story had been developed at greater length (and sometimes that can be a positive thing, rather than something to get frustrated about).

Finally, a brief word on the overlap with The Inelegant Universe - which is also highly recommended. Which one should you read first, given that Yard Sale includes 5 of the 13 stories in that earlier collection (plus 4 new ones)?   Well, if you start with The Inelegant Universe, maybe stop at story 9 (which is where the overlap begins) - and then switch to Yard Sale at that point.  As noted above, I think all the stories in Yard Sale are capable of standing on their own - but reading them as a series of “snapshots” connected by the character of Ruth gives them an extra dimension (although I’m not sure which of the 10 or 11 dimensions of the string theory cosmos this would be…).

For more examples of fiction which is somewhere between a novel and a short story collection, see my reviews of:

In : Book reviews 

Tags: "charles hibbard" "yard sale" "short stories" 
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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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