Books

Rebecca Makkai shows off her skill for short stories in ‘Music for Wartime’

If any short story writer can be considered a rock star of the genre, it’s Rebecca Makkai.

She has had a story selected for the annual “Best American Short Stories” anthology in four consecutive years. Yet the author of two novels, most recently of last year’s “The Hundred-Year House,” had not published a collection of short fiction until now.

The 17 stories in “Music for Wartime” travel from World War II-era Hungary to the New York art scene in the 1980s to contemporary Chicago, exploring the themes of war, love, art and guilt.

The collection braids together stories from two seemingly different camps. The first set takes place in the rarefied world of artists, actors and musicians who find themselves bewildered as their relationships crumble around them.

A standout, “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” tells of an English professor, notorious for accidentally shooting an albatross, Ancient Mariner-style, whose professional gaffe leads to a crossroads in her career and personal life.

These stories match well with the art-colony/family saga in “The Hundred-Year House.” Here, as in her novel, Makkai’s narrative voice brings warmth and empathy to subject matter and characters that could easily become aloof. Still, there are one or two too many of these stories in the collection; they start to lose a little spark toward the end.

The other half of the book concerns the “wartime” of the title. Many deal, directly or indirectly, with Hungary during World War II and its aftermath. In “The Worst You Ever Feel,” a young boy with a psychic understanding of pain plays a duet with a formerly imprisoned Romanian violinist.

Many of the stories of this variety are short and fable-like. Others are less narrative, more essayistic pieces wherein the narrator reflects on her grandparents’ involvement and complicity in the war and on the ways this family story shows up in her own writing. These interludes provide structure to the book, adding a layer of commentary and a recurring thread that helps tie the collection together.

Collections can run the risk of being too self-conscious — more objets d’art than stories. Perhaps by taking her time to compile this book, Makkai avoids most of these pitfalls.

Her greatest strength may be never forgetting that she is a storyteller first, an artist second.

“Music for Wartime,” by Rebecca Makkai (223 pages; Viking; $26.95)

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