In 15 short stories, evenly divided into three sections of five, Aimee Bender explores the unevenness, strangeness and magic of both loneliness and companionship. The stories collected in THE COLOR MASTER are united in theme, symbol and type of character, even though the settings and particulars are diverse. Most have a fairy tale quality, there is magic of both obvious and subtle types, and all are compelling and provocative.
Bender opens with a very short, almost micro-story titled “Appleless,” about a group of people, perhaps children, who, except for one among them, eat nothing but apples. The appleless girl, beautiful and “wheatlike,” is consumed by the others, becoming their bread. It is a lovely but dark scene that sets the tone for the rest of the book as it leaves readers to wonder if they are in the realm of reality or fantasy, symbol or solidity. In “Tiger Mending,” two sisters, one a skilled seamstress and the other a lonely soul, travel to Asia to heal tigers whose skin mysteriously has been peeled off their backs. “The Color Master” also has characters stitching amazing objects, in this case leather clothing in the colors of the sun, moon and sky to please a royal family and perhaps save a princess. Needles and ribbons show up from time to time in the stories as indicators of uncertainty or transformation.
"THE COLOR MASTER succeeds. It is a book that could be read in one sitting as the pace is brisk and the style straightforward. But each story should be mulled over, unpacked and contemplated as the simplicity of the writing belays the complexity of the ideas."
But emotional isolation or awkwardness seems to really be the overarching motif here. Sometimes it is temporary; in “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” an atheist physician is befriended by a rabbi after treating her as a patient, and in “Bad Return,” a college-age woman spends a strange evening with an elderly man who sends her home to be with the friend she was unsure about. But often, the alienation of Bender’s characters is more fundamental or deep. In “Faceless,” a boy named William cannot or will not see the faces of the people around him. A teenage girl at the mall with her friends is a social and temperamental outlier, and the man in “Wordkeepers” is losing the “words of things” and is unable to commit to a relationship with a woman he truly likes.
Some of the stories are Bender’s particular shade of strange: dreamlike but with threads of menace running through them. “Americca” is the story of a family who finds extra objects around the house with no explanation. An ogre’s wife mourns the loss of her children yet returns to the husband who killed them in “The Devourings.” But in almost all these tales, the fantastical becomes mundane and the mundane fantastical as elements of real life are woven with visions and shimmering glimpses of both the interior life and a vast and unknowable exterior world.
Like any short story collection, some selections are stronger than others. Overall, though, THE COLOR MASTER succeeds. It is a book that could be read in one sitting as the pace is brisk and the style straightforward. But each story should be mulled over, unpacked and contemplated as the simplicity of the writing belays the complexity of the ideas.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 16, 2013