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Further Adventures in the Restless Universe

Dawn Raffel's newest collection of short stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, is an intriguing look at relationships. The spare, unfussy prose explores familial boundaries, the complicated connections between mothers and their children, sisters, aunts and great aunts, husbands and wives. The mundane matters of every day existence – taking a child to a museum or carving a pumpkin, a phone call to catch up, a day spent at the beach, learning to drive – fill up Raffel's prose; each story occupies only a few pages (in some cases only one), but each moment captured by her prose completely fills up the whole space.

Dawn Raffel's newest collection of short stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, is an intriguing look at relationships. The spare, unfussy prose explores familial boundaries, the complicated connections between mothers and their children, sisters, aunts and great aunts, husbands and wives. The mundane matters of every day existence – taking a child to a museum or carving a pumpkin, a phone call to catch up, a day spent at the beach, learning to drive – fill up Raffel's prose; each story occupies only a few pages (in some cases only one), but each moment captured by her prose completely fills up the whole space.

Raffel's prose borders on poetry, but in the end, it doesn't tip into prose poetry. It also seems incorrect to call it "flash fiction." Lacking a better term, short story has to suffice. Her sparse, direct word choices sift away all the extraneous matter. This is not to say that her prose is direct and honest only. At times she is given to flights of fancy, as in “All Along the Silk Road,” where she uses her narrator's neuroses to propel the reader into a world of shifting reality: "She was frightened of wind." And later: "She went walking alone along the lake, in the elements, wakeful, in the night, in rain. Night after night: a sweater, a jacket, forever a hood (unruly hair), against better judgment."

Raffel's is an aesthetic that takes some getting used to; and once you immerse yourself, the well-crafted art of her writing never feels natural. Instead, like watching The Jetsons or some other fantastical program, you find it easier and easier to not question whatever oddities arise like in "The Alternate Palace": "I sat on the river, on the ferry one day, and watched the city burn. I was leaving, of course."

What is most interesting about the stories in Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is what is not said. For example, the beginning of "North of the Middle":

They are both of them, mother and daughter, inflamed by something miniscule, sneezing in tissues, covert sleeves, a hand.

The mother says, “Bless.”

The daughter says, “God.”

The mother says, “Look.” She says, “Look at yourself.”

The daughter is young. She is darling to look at, the mother says. “If only,” the mother says.

“Stop it,” the daughter says, the timbre dropped, as if some sort of gauntlet. “Mother,” she says.

“All I am saying,” the mother says.

As a reader, this kind of writing makes me feel like an explorer in an unknown place, often struggling for a spot that feels comfortable and creating one in my head if I can't find it – unsure of myself, on guard. It is an interesting and beguiling approach to prose.

Much of the writing here is dialogue, and Raffel has a keen ear for what is important in conversation and what passes by unheard. She obviously pays great attention to how we humans speak to one another, and she is adept at placing each word and sentence just so – effectively creating characters' worldly lives in an otherworldly way.

This graceful, slim volume is full of hard choices and privileged yet unfulfilled lives. Reality may be an adventure in Raffel's cleverly and artfully crafted new collection, and as she writes it, is always an adventure worth taking.

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