“I am a journalist not a soldier” one character tells another in “Days of Awe,” the title story from AM Homes’s latest collection. He and his novelist interlocutor have sneaked off from a genocide conference they are attending to pick apples and exchange sexual innuendo. The pair’s academic interest in the pain of others is unnervingly juxtaposed with their erotic playfulness. Homes, an American writer whose best-known work The End of Alice is narrated by an incarcerated child-killer, has long been a master of exposing the lurid reality lying just beneath the everyday. Here she exposes the banality of two selfish people who play with human suffering.
Both absurdity and depredation are woven through the rest of the collection. In “Brother on Sunday,” a macabre atmosphere hovers over a group of middle-aged friends on a beach drinking mimosa cocktails out of a thermos.
The pursuit of youth and how ageing creeps up on everyone in the end is a running theme. The hacked-off breast of a woman who has battled cancer, the sagging flesh and the self-administration of Botox shots before brunch—all expose an abundance of misery among otherwise privileged people. “I can’t stand it anymore, I’m miserable,” the husband of the woman with cancer says when he tells her of his decision to divorce her. He speaks, it seems, for everyone in the story.
In other stories, such as “Be Mine,” there is something oddly disturbing about how an unnamed couple exchange seemingly innocuous clichéd sentences.
Homes’s novels display her power to sustain terror and tension in a protracted narrative; the short stories reveal her talent for delivering the same effects in a more self-contained form. She doesn’t describe scenes of blood and gore; instead, in the pages of Days of Awe, there is horror of a higher sort, that of memory and mortality. Here there are tenacious terrors that linger long after you close the book.
Days of Awe by AM Homes (Granta, £14.99)