A Masterful Gem of a Story
In the course of my career as a publisher I have to read thousands of short stories, some of which I then select to publish in my monthly magazine or in Clarendon House anthologies because I have determined that there is something worthy about them, something which has earned them a chance to find more readers.
Occasionally, I come across a story which I consider to be a true work of art, by which I mean a piece of fiction which can be read again and again with pleasure, each time resonating for the reader in a slightly new way. These pieces are quite rare, and are to be treasured. And though it could be folly to attempt to do so, it might be worthwhile to try to ‘deconstruct’ one of them to see if we can learn exactly what it is about such an artefact that works so well. Real art can be examined in this way without fear that unearthing its ‘secrets’ will dispel its magic, because a real artwork has tapped into something larger than itself and echoes with voices and musics perhaps far beyond those intended by the author.
Such a piece is ‘Nun or Not?’ by Gabriella Balcom. It was first submitted to me for inclusion in the Clarendon House anthology Rapture, but I was so impressed by it that I not only included it there but republished it a few months later in Gold: The Best of Clarendon House Anthologies 2017/18. It appears again now in Gabriella’s new collection On the Wings of Ideas.
Why do I think it’s so good? I’ll try to break it down as it happens to a reader picking up the story for the first time. But in so doing, I have to point out that the only real way to appreciate it is to read it and re-read it - inevitably in such a short discourse about it, I’m going to miss many of its delights.
The brief glossary at the beginning of the story sets the scene. We know that we are in a foreign land, Slovenia, but also sense that the author is in command of her material as she introduces us to her chief characters, Marijeta, her son Jakob and later Sister Aloizija. Slovenia is ever-present in the tale: we get brief glimpses of a war-torn history, and a rural geography, populated with ancient churches and rustic villages — but never for a moment do we feel that this landscape has been artificially ‘researched’: it is totally convincing. The reader can almost smell the stony, musty atmosphere of the churches, the faint scent of incense from rituals, the farmyard aromas in the villages. And all this is just a backdrop for the drama.
Characters form the real strength of this tale. In just a few words, a vibrant picture is painted of the dedicated and loving Marijeta and her hard, aloof but deeply loving son Jakob. Tiny observations of human behaviour convict us immediately that this is going to be a tale worth reading:
"My time is limited, so I must speak while I can." Seeing him tighten his lips and shake his head, she knew he rejected the idea of her dying. "From the time I carried you inside me, I knew a great destiny awaited you."