A review of Christopher Barzak's Before and Afterlives

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Christopher Barzak's Before and Afterlives will be published by Lethe Press in March 2013.

Information about Christopher Barzak:

Christopher Barzak is an American author. He is the author of the novels One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing, and the short story collection Birds and Birthdays.

Click here to visit Christopher Barzak's official website.

Information about Before and Afterlives:

Discover the haunting stories of Crawford Award-winning author Christopher Barzak in his new collection Before and Afterlives. These are tales of relationships with unearthly domesticity and eeriness: a woman falls in love with a haunted house; a beached mermaid is substituted for a disappeared daughter; the imaginary friend of a murdered young woman stalks the streets of her small town; a mother's teenage son is afflicted with a disease that causes him to vanish; a father exploits his daughter's talent for calling ghosts to her; and a wife leaves her husband and children to fulfill her obligations in the world from which she escaped.


Before I write more about this short story collection, I'll mention that this review is based on a PDF ARC.

Before and Afterlives contains the following stories:

  • What We Know About the Lost Families of — House
  • The Drowned Mermaid
  • Dead Boy Found
  • A Mad Tea Party
  • Born on the Edge of an Adjective
  • The Other Angelas
  • A Resurrection Artist
  • The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire
  • Map of Seventeen
  • Dead Letters
  • Plenty
  • The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter
  • Caryatids
  • A Beginner's Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse
  • Smoke City
  • Vanishing Point
  • The Language of Moths

Before and Afterlives is an excellent short story collection full of literary fantasy and horror. The stories range from fantasy stories to ghost stories. There's a lot to like in these melancholy, weird and wondrous stories, because they're exceptionally well told tales. There's plenty of intelligence, philosophy and subtle wisdom hidden in them.

I've always been fascinated by weird stories, so I liked the weirdness of these stories very much. I think it's good to mention that these stories aren't exactly weird fiction, but speculative fiction with weird elements. Some of these stories are almost weird fiction, because there's plenty of subtle and charming weirdness in them. For example, Vanishing Point is a story, which could be categorized as modern weird fiction or possibly new weird fiction, because it's a story about a boy who is gradually disappearing.

One of the best things about this collection is that the author isn't afraid of writing about difficult themes. There aren't many authors who are able to write about everyday life, relationships, paranormal elements and sexuality as fluently as Christopher Barzak does. What makes his stories special is that the he spices them with fantastical elements and makes his readers think about things. I think that these stories will linger in the readers' minds for a long time, because it's almost impossible to stop thinking about them and their strange beauty.

Although I enjoyed reading all the stories in this collection, the best stories were Map of Seventeen and The Language of Moths, because they truly stand out in terms of depth and style (in both stories the author blends reality with fantasy).

Map of Seventeen is a beautifully written story about Meg, her brother Tommy and Tommy's boyfriend, Tristan. It's a touching story about family life, secrets, art, homosexuality and acceptance. In my opinion the author has come up with an original idea, because he writes about being gay in a state that won't allow you to have equal rights as a citizen and infuses the story with fantastical elements about being a merman (comparing being a merman to being gay is fascinating). (By the way, Map of Seventeen was nominated for the 2011 Nebula Award.)

The Language of Moths is a multi-layered and complex story about Eliot and his autistic sister, Dawn. Eliot and Dawn are with their parents in the mountains, because their father studies moths and wants to find a rare moth species. In this story - just like in Map of Seventeen - the author combines several different elements effortlessly and creates an interesting and touching story. He writes how Eliot and Dawn see the world and how they feel about things. I was amazed how fluently the author wrote about Eliot's awakening homosexuality and feelings towards a guy.

Because I want to avoid writing too many spoilers, I'll write shortly about some of the other stories:

What We Know About the Lost Families of — House is a good and well written haunted house story with interesting ghostly elements.

The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter is a fascinating story about Sylvie who has a gift of seeing and talking to ghosts. Her father uses her gift to hunt ghosts. (I enjoyed reading about Sylvie and what she thought about her father and his job.)

The Drowned Mermaid is a beautifully written story about Helena who finds a mermaid on the beach and decides to take care of her. The author writes believably about the feelings of Helena and her husband.

A Mad Tea Party is a story about madness and what it does to people. The protagonist, Alice, has problems with her mental health and she acts in strange ways.

A Beginner's Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse is definitely worth mentioning, because it's an interesting guide book about how to survive an apocalypse. It contains quite a lot of sharpness and also a bit of black humour.

Caryatids is an interesting story about sexual fantasies and how a body can be reconstructed by rewriting genes. This story contains quite a lot of sex.

All of these stories are written and structured perfectly. The author has paid a lot of attention to small details and atmosphere.

One of the things why I loved these stories is that the author has infused his prose with believable and realistic descriptions about human feelings (in my opinion he writes exceptionally beautifully and touchingly about the feelings of the characters). For example, Eliot's feelings in The Language of Moths are explored in an interesting way, because he has to deal with being different and he also has to take care of his autistic sister.

Christopher Barzak writes compellingly about his characters and what happens to them. The characters (teenagers, parents, lovers etc.) in these stories feel fresh and believable. It was interesting to read how the characters handled difficult situations, because each of them had his/her own way of dealing with them.

I'm glad that I had a chance to read Before and Afterlives, because I was impressed by Christopher Barzak's writing style, inventiveness and range of imagination. He writes beautifully and bittersweetly about life, love, death, sorrow, longing, hopefulness and sexuality, and isn't afraid of writing about difficult themes.

To be honest, Before and Afterlives is one of the best short story collections I've read during the last couple of years, because Christopher Barzak's prose is hauntingly beautiful. The power of these stories lies in the author's descriptive writing style and sense of depth. His prose is surprisingly delicate and he approaches several things in a sensitive way, but - if needed - he also dares to add macabre elements and sharpness. Because I liked this collection, I intend to read all of Christopher Barzak's books in the near future.

I have to mention that after reading Before and Afterlives I'm even more convinced than before that speculative fiction is one of the best tools to address difficult themes and controversial material. Speculative fiction gives authors a lot more freedom to  explore different themes than mainstream fiction, because speculative fiction authors are often allowed to write about almost anything. In this collection Christopher Barzak delves deep into the realms of human nature and the unknown, and shows his readers what a speculative fiction author can do with difficult themes.

I highly recommend Before and Afterlives to all readers who are interested in speculative fiction, literary prose and quality stories. Please, do yourself a favour and read this collection - I'm sure that you'll love it.

Excellent short story collection!