A new book out from Jennifer Haigh is always cause for celebration here at EDIWTB. I think she has become my favorite contemporary author. Her books are rich, layered stories, usually about families, told in a distinctive gentle, quiet tone that immediately sucks me in and keeps me reading to the last page. There is always sadness and loss in her books, but they aren’t depressing. Instead, they are realistic portrayals of the ups and downs of life, and the myriad disappointments, secrets, thrills and dreams that make up our individual histories.
News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, which just came out two weeks ago, is a collection of stories that extend the post-war Pennsylvania mining town world Haigh created in Baker Towers (reviewed here). There are a number of characters here that overap with those in Baker Towers; in some cases, Haigh has filled out lives that were skeletal in Baker Towers, and in others she has added new chapters to lives she left at the end of her previous work.
Not all of these stories take place in Bakerton, but the claustrophobic, past-its-prime town plays a role in each of them. Everyone returns home to their once high-flying but now dying town, it seems, whether to visit, or in a casket, or in shame, or for a sense of belonging and history. Haigh’s stories span half a century, and there are many stages here – not only of her characters’ lives, but of the town’s history.
I enjoyed that most of these stories had a catch at the end – a little twist that cast the rest of the story in a new light. I found myself speeding up at the end of the chapters, eager to reach that “Eureka!” moment that Haigh had quietly dropped in. An infidelity discovered many years later, or the discovery that a revered hometown hero was keeping a secret, or simply the question of whether a younger man in an unexpected relationship had honorable intentions or not – these are the little mysteries that Haigh solves throughout the collection.
My only complaint is my typical one about short stories – they just aren’t as satisfying as novels. Each of these chapters could have been its own novel, and I was sad to see it end every time. But I won’t complain – a new Haigh book is a new Haigh book, and it’s simply a treasure.