Reviewed by Brandon Hobson
In Chiara Barzini's first collection of stories, Sister Stop Breathing, we are often thrust into unfamiliar territory with an astringent intensity seen only in such writers as Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. Like those writers, most of Barzini's pieces are short and meditative but explore much larger, often complicated issues such as death and incest and childhood. Most of the stories in this collection are short, only 1-2 pages each, but they are minimalist only in word count. Barzini's language and broad imagination offer something much larger in these stories.
Take the opening of "The Poisoning," for example: "'I'd like to poison myself and take my life,' said the grandfather one day. 'The way things are going, it would be a good idea if the child did the same.' I told him if anyone were to poison the boy it should be me, since I am his mother." Or "Dead Sheep," where a child witnesses the disfigured carcass of a sheep on the side of the road: "My mother gets out of the car to get a good look. 'Too bad it's not a ram. We could have used the horns.' In "Wide Vowels," a writer gives women in jail a word exercise because he "plans on recording their voices and selling the product as post structural speech art." The narrator of "Dead Prime Minister" who encounters the prime minister, recently deceased, who "sits on the steps beneath the altar slumped over like a limp puppet."
Barzini's prose is hauntingly beautiful. Her voice, at times dark and playful, bears a distinct if not revelatory tone, as if Barzini is giving crucial advice on the consequences of being young and bored—but one quickly realizes the stories go deeper than that: In "Los Angeles," the narrator tells us: "If you are still bored because you don't have a car, you may dress up in your mother's clothes and walk like a prostitute on Sepulveda Avenue." In "Polish and Beautiful," the narrator rides a train where "you are not allowed to bring buckets of jewelry aboard. Keep the jewelry somewhere where nobody can see, and watch out for guards." In the opening of the title story, the narrator asks: "What can you do if you want your sister to stop breathing? Ice her up and drive north." " In "First Babies," the narrator explains: "First babies know pain is right around the corner." Like these babies, Barzini's other characters possess an elusive sense of danger that is lurking somewhere around the corner, something often not understood until we reach the powerful last line of each story.
This is why each line in Barzini's sentences is so important. She has a powerful gift, which is the ability to write brisk, glass-clear prose with a strong payoff. In "Youth Hostel," the narrator enrolls in a grave-digging course led by a female body-builder who has lived at the hostel for ten years. "She hands me a shovel and a pair of gloves, then stands at the far end of the hole while I begin to dig." The narrator soon finds herself in her own grave, questioning herself, her fears: "I wonder how long it will take for me to turn into dirt or be eaten by worms."
One of the longest pieces in the book, "Vauville" is a dark portrait of a girl reuniting with her father who lives in France. The story opens with a note the girl leaves for her sister and mother: "Don't underestimate me. If you are inclined to worry, remember that I know what I am doing." Throughout the story we get descriptions of her father's house, his artwork, his swimming pool, an elaborate landscape seen through the lens of a young and vulnerable narrator. Yet she tells us, "I am here to enjoy him not as a father, but as a man." Her father is charming, polite. She presents a portrait of a loving father: "He used to build things for me as a kid. He made necklaces and earrings for me with his own hands. He taught me to weld, to measure, to tell time. The jewels he made for me were always silver. Everyone else's were aluminum, even my mother's." When the narrator tells her father she doesn't have a bathing suit, he lets her wear his new wife's. When she asks him, "What's good about doing something if you are going to regret it for the rest of your life?" we are not prepared for what happens next.
Rarely in such a short collection do we find such triumph. Barzini's slim book is a rendering of voice and sensibility, full of strange, delightful stories. She has given us a great gift.