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Like You'd Understand, AnywayReview - Like You'd Understand, Anyway
Stories
by Jim Shepard
Knopf, 2007
Review by Tony O'Brien
Dec 4th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 49)

This is possibly one of the more unusual collections of short stories you are likely to come across. There are just eleven stories, but they span the continents, the millennia, the range of human conflict. It would take a brave writer to tackle material as diverse as Chernobyl, Hadrian's wall, the Australian desert, Ancient Greece and the Himalayas. But that's exactly what Jim Shepherd does admirably in Like You'd Understand, Anyway. It's not that all the stories are historical. There are several set in contemporary times. You finish this book feeling that you've been shown a panorama of western history. Alien settings are convincingly evoked, characters lost to time come to life on the page, and Shepherd creates resonances between the distant past and the present. Like You'd Understand, Anyway is a singular achievement.

The first story The Zero Meter Diving Team is set in Chernobyl, following the nuclear meltdown. The terrible events are given poignancy through their effects on a single family. Understatement is the key to this story's success in drawing on tragedy to show its human implications. Through the eyes of the Prushinsky brothers, Shepherd provides a matter of fact account of the devastation of Chernobyl. Images such as that of the stream of busses taking families away from their home forever, and the helicopter fire crews who lasted just a few hours before being fatally irradiated are described simply and sparingly. It would do Shepherd a disservice to say the narration is unemotional. This is a tragically sad story made more accessible by Shepherd's faith that his readers' humanity will power the narrative. The title of the story is a family joke, showing that there's a place for humor, delicately placed and respectful, even in such ominous conditions.

Shepherd's capacity to empathize is demonstrated throughout the collection. The reader feels for the woman astronaut who misses out, perhaps unfairly, on the chance to be the first woman in space. The foolish explorer driven by delusional vanity; the football player hell bent on living up to his father's expectations, Aeschylus and his brother Kynegeiros on the field at Marathon. Shepherd even gives us an insight into the mind of the guillotine operator during the Terror, complete with such telling details as the effect of all the blood on the ground beneath.

A considerable amount of research underpins these stories, evident in the impressive reading list contained in the front of the book. I wonder how many people have read both The Soviet Manned Space Program and The Journals of Charles Sturt. Perhaps a few Australians, but I would expect very few others. Part of Shepherd's skill as a writer is to wear all this research lightly. The historical works have been digested to provide both a sense of the times and the sorts of details that add to the pleasure of reading. These are woven together so that the reader feels a sense of familiarity while on night patrol at Hadrian's Wall as much as in the vastness of Tibet tracking the yeti. The details never overwhelm the story. Shepherd is first and last a writer of fiction and it is the clarity and precision of his prose that make this such a readable collection.

Take your time over these stories. See if you can resist jumping from Roman Britain to a football field in Texas then to the Himalayas in a single hour. If like me you can't, then you can always go back and read again. You won't be disappointed. If you have any time left, Shepherd has a very long list of suggestions at the front of the book.

© 2007 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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