'The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons': Short fiction winners worthy of the prize

The stories in Heather A. Slomski’s “The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons” (University of Iowa Press, 125 pages, $16) are driven by insinuation rather than incident. Characters find themselves powerless under the influence of an idea or a perception. The mood is often one of disquiet. The collection, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is gripping from beginning to end.

In “Neighbors,” a couple — Finn and Lana — newly arrived in Louisville attempts to strike up a friendship with the couple — Burton and Olivia — across the street. Finn, however, is convinced he is being slighted by Burton at every opportunity. Slomski introduces plenty of ambiguity into the situation, leaving the reader to puzzle over whether Finn’s suspicions are justified or stem from a bad moment in his history with Lana.

Unease in a relationship is a recurring theme. It drives, among others, the title story — in which the narrator has dinner with her partner, the woman he had an affair with, and that woman’s current boyfriend — and “The Allure of All This,” which finds a man connecting emotionally with a mannequin as his wife withdraws from him. These stories feature innovative structures and offbeat, yet resonant, twists.

The book also features a number of quite brief stories, each of which distills a powerful emotional moment or scene of wonder. In “The Chair,” for example, a man sells the story’s titular object but finds it difficult to part with.

Though there is darkness in many of these stories, Slomski’s prose is light and often charming. The book closes with “Before the Story Ends,” a story with the tenor of a fairy tale (indeed, it opens “Once upon a time” and closes “happily ever after”) despite the sadness at its core. The story is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. Similar balances of light and dark animate this exceptional collection.

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