In his debut story collection Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, Edward Hamlin doesn’t shy away from difficult conflict, nor does he allow his characters much respite. No, his work in this collection, which won the 2015 Iowa Short Fiction Award, seems to embody the advice a fiction professor once gave me: “Make your characters suffer more.”
Indeed, Hamlin’s characters suffer. The complexity of conflict within his collection is astounding and immediate. These aren’t quiet stories in which characters wrestle with one simple central problem. No, the conflicts are continually compounded within each narrative.
Not only does the professor in “Not Yet” lose his wife to illness, but soon he loses another potential loved one to a devastating wildfire—which, he comes to learn, he himself has caused. Not only is the photojournalist in “Light Year” struggling with ailing eyesight, but she’s actually going blind and must race to complete her final project—a study of light that she knows she’ll never see again. Not only is the married couple in the title story navigating estrangement and challenging travel arrangements in Morocco, but they’re also engaging in an armed standoff in the desert fueled by the wife’s guilt in response to her brother’s death in Afghanistan.
These multifaceted narratives are devastating to the characters suffering through them and to readers. Hamlin is skillful at framing these long stories around problems that are weighty and meaningful to the characters, giving his stories density and fullness. He recognizes tension as an engine of drama and does all he can to tighten the wires binding the conflicts, making characters’ lives more and more difficult.
In “One Child Policy,” for example, not only is the recently immigrated Chinese restaurant worker facing a blizzard and a white supremacist on her solitary late night commute home, but she also harbors the understanding that her father shipped her to America so that he could erase her as his one child (and have a new child with somebody else). Did I mention that her mother died before she left China? And that she’s virtually alone in the States, aside from her boss and another restaurant worker? And that tonight is her birthday? Hamlin indeed doesn’t give his character any easy way out of her problems. Her successful navigation of the subway is matched by a violent and degrading assault by a subway-riding skinhead. Even her escape from him draws only a short-lived sigh of relief—she still has blocks to walk along the subway tracks, in her thin, ineffectual clothing, hoping she can find her way before the blizzard and her own heartbreak kill her.
In lesser hands, this relentless piling-on of problems could result in melodrama, but not here. Hamlin navigates interiority in a way that feels authentic; he’s careful to honor the characters’ individual vulnerabilities and viewpoints.
The final two stories in Night in Erg Chebbi—both told in first person by morally questionable characters—read almost as if Hamlin wanted to challenge the limits of his own empathy. “Boy, Unleashed,” for example, is told from the perspective of a father who routinely restrains his mentally ill son by hooking him up to a dog leash. This father, who downplays that his wife is neglectful and sometimes violent with their child, seems baffled that authorities finally show up to arrest her for abuse and to take the boy away from them. After all, they have reasons for treating their son this way: “A man’s gotta tend to the safety of his child,” he tells us. He’s even more baffled when the arrest becomes an all-out chase and televised manhunt. Then in “Clemency,” Hamlin challenges readers’ compassion with a grocery worker who, more than a decade ago, defiled a just-murdered woman. In the story’s present action, he attends a rally fighting for the actual murderer’s execution, in part because the murderer may be the only person who knows what he, the grocery worker, did to the woman’s body. While I applaud Hamlin’s taking up of these troubled lives—indeed, he creates nuanced, unexpected portraits of these men—as a reader I didn’t feel quite empathetic. Instead, these two stories felt more like interesting narrative experiments.
For me, the power of the collection resides most strongly in the earlier stories. I found “One Child Policy” and “Night in Erg Chebbi” (which won Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Fiction in 2013) particularly moving in their depictions of heartache. In them, Hamlin pushes his characters into very difficult emotional territory and forces them to find the grace to keep going. The boldness of making characters suffer in such ways, coupled with the abiding belief that the characters can fight their way through, allows this collection to be profound at times. Writers can learn from that coupling, and readers want to keep reading it.
The focus on conflict in this review is not to overlook Hamlin’s often-stunning language. He uses many surprising metaphors; for example, in “One Child Policy”: “For hours now she’s been watching the snow roar down Eighth Avenue like a huge white horse on a frantic gallop.” The book also has arresting physical descriptions, such as this passage from “Light Year”:
She is very interested in exposure, as it happens, but of a different sort: it is all about the light now. The grey scalp of water; the cold phosphorescence of cirrus clouds as the sun lurks behind them; the slow reefs of ice that slide through a spectrum of bony whites as the morning inches forward.
In other words, Night in Erg Chebbi is a very solid debut.
About the Reviewer
Corey Campbell’s fiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, the Rattling Wall, Jabberwock Review, and Anderbo . A PhD student at the University of Houston, she has an MFA from Warren Wilson College and has received support from Inprint, Sewanee, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She's a contributing editor for the journal Waxwing .