In the Amber Chamber (Brighthorse Books, 2018) is an eclectic short story collection by Carrie Messenger, Associate Professor of English at Shepherd University, that manages the rare feat of being consistent in quality while navigating through widely diverse genres and styles. Its stories range from speculative fiction to whimsical fables drawing from an idiosyncratic mix of fantasy and Eastern European lore all the way to historical fiction. Messenger’s skilled weaving of myth and fact brings to mind the stories of Argentinean fantasist Jorge Luis Borges and the genre-bending fiction of Kelly Link.
A series of interconnected stories about the cryptically named “Village of C.” put a dark spin on well-known fairy tales and Eastern European history. “Reports from the Village of C., Near the Great Forest of Codru,” is a clever version of the Hansel and Gretel tale set against the backdrop of the postwar Soviet famine of 1946-47. Meanwhile, “Reports on the Capra Family in the Village of C.,” riffs on The Three Little Pigs and pits an anthropomorphic family of goats (the Capras) against the rapacious Comrade Lupul, as, once again, the pervasive famine brings out the worst in some characters. The tone of these stories ambles between that of a folk tale and an account written by a Soviet bureaucrat. The “Comrade Grimm” that allegedly pens these “reports” appears to be a Soviet apparatchik version of the storyteller brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
“South 1144” is a fictionalized account of the love affair between scholar of religions Mircea Eliade and Indian poet Maitreyi Devi. The real life story of this failed relationship and how both authors ended up writing separate novels about their romance is fascinating and yet possibly marred by the fact that most of what we know about it comes from the conflicting fictionalized versions of the two persons involved. Messenger’s story about Devi and Eliade’s youthful romance in Calcutta and their uneasy encounter in Chicago four decades later interrogates all this through fiction.
“How the Romanians Ruined Christmas,” is a story told through a child’s voice about a Jewish family that migrates from the brutal Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu to Skokie, Illinois. As the children adapt to their new life, the family gets occasional news about their homeland. Upon finding out that Ceausescu and his wife have been executed, Taticul, the father of the family, says: “The monsters are dead.” His wife replies: “Who will be the new monsters? Because it will just be a matter of time.”
While it’s difficult—and perhaps unnecessary—to look for a unifying thread in every story, one theme that is pervasive is precisely that of monsters and the fascination they exert on us: Monsters of egotism like the great men who cast their partners aside in pursuit of individual glory, real-life monsters like the Ceasescus, or monsters like the highly-decorated soldier who adopts the children of the political insurgents he executed in “Children Left to Be Raised by Wolves,” yet another haunting story in this collection.
As the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran said: “A monster, as horrible as he may be, secretly attracts us, pursues us, haunts us. He represents and enlarges our advantages and our miseries, he proclaims us, he is our standard-bearer.” Through the ostensibly fantastic lens of In the Amber Chamber we get to see these monsters and how closely they resemble us.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza