Russell Banks - A Permanent Member of the Family (3 stars)

Banks' latest short stories collection features some clear and bracingly honest writing

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Russell Banks - A Permanent Member of the Family

(The Clerkenwell Press)

In his latest short story collection, Russell Banks preserves his reputation of concentrating on the more depressing aspects of life. This time around, his focus is on what it means to be a member of a family, with each of his characters coming to terms with the fact that family ties aren’t as strong as they might have hoped. The title isn’t entirely ironic, though, with all its talk of 'permanence'; as Banks makes clear, even when a family breaks apart, the emotional bonds that once held it together don’t necessarily follow suit.

Most of the stories take place in either wintry New York State or scorching Miami, and the intensity of these climates is matched by the extreme situations the characters find themselves in. Banks’ subject is also suited by the bluntness of his prose style. He writes in simple, matter-of-fact sentences, favouring direct descriptions of thought and action over any florid language or ambiguity. His characters are intensely aware of their shortcomings, and throughout, this no-nonsense attitude to charting emotional pain allows for a rare level of sadness and empathy.

The collection isn't flawless. Some of the dialogue is blatantly expositional, most noticeably in the sketchy father-son conversations of the opening story, 'Former Marine'. There are also some problems with time, such as in 'Lost and Found', which finds Stanley in mid-conversation with Ellen; he quickly becomes lost in memories of their almost-affair five years ago, and as we read eight pages of flashback we can only imagine Ellen in the present day, standing around while she politely waits for him to catch up. Elsewhere, stories like 'Blue' and 'The Invisible Parrot' stray a little too far from the focus on family, and might have found a better home elsewhere.

But there's at least half of a solid collection here. Banks’s forthright style is the perfect mode for scrutinising family life, and though he loses focus a little around the midway point, it's hard to resist the power of such clear and bracingly honest writing.

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