I’ve just returned from a trip to Alaska in search of bears, and came away thoroughly impressed by this arresting collection of short stories. I was immediately catapulted into life on the Kenai river and could almost smell the fish guts as the characters fished and fought their way through life.
These stories mostly cycled through the same group of characters at different stages of their lives, whose tales were interwoven. I flew through this collection, enjoying the flash of recognition which came when you realised that this new character was the daughter of someone you felt you already knew, or that you were witnessing the childhood of another. The landscape and people of Alaska may be harsh, but they are also capable of great love and I really warmed to both the place and the characters portrayed here.
Having said that, this collection of stories was often unsettling: a “voodoo” mannequin full of fish hooks marking where casualties had hooked themselves while fishing (or during other pursuits); an eaglet trapped down the outside toilet; the violence of a father who has spent too long in the wild. Cruelty and death are never far away here, but there is also hope: a mother saving for her daughter’s college fund; siblings helping each other to come to terms with their past; and simple pleasures such as fishing the river for king salmon. Although life is often bleak, the characters never give up and the final image the book leaves you with sums this up perfectly (I won’t spoil it).
What really stood out for me was the vividness with which Moustakis portrayed the landscape:
“The Kenai is a rope, choking off a piece of land with a slow, snaking hold.”
The river is the centrepiece of most of the stories, and fishing is the main employment. Whether it is for tourists, commercial fishing or private sport, all of its intricacies are portrayed here. And the star of the show – the salmon run:
“Their skin glimmers like knives and their meat turns red.”
I felt as though I was there, standing behind the characters as they baited their hooks and cast their nets. This was the best short story collection I have read in some time and, as in the first very short story – Trigger, it “came into the world with a bang.”