Disasters in the First World

In Olivia Clare's lyrical and elegiac first short story collection, Disasters in the First World, the characters' mental health is examined with clear-eyed compassion. The excellent "Pétur" introduces Adam, who watches his mother behave in increasingly strange ways on a shared vacation to Iceland. At first he attributes her oddness to her free-spirit personality, but eventually, he learns the startling truth--that her behavior may have clinical roots. In "Olivia," another standout, the titular character mitigates her anxiety and depression by creating an "Asking place" in her guest bedroom; she visits daily to petition a greater power for happiness. When a young friend of her husband comes to stay with them for a few weeks, Olivia is at first dismayed at having to give up, even temporarily, her sanctuary. But she softens when she realizes that her guest's suffering might be even more debilitating than her own.

Clare's writing sparkles with unexpected word choice, a nod to her previous work, the poetry collection The 26-Hour Day. Her stories unfold in wonderfully astonishing turns. Despite their collective focus on mental breaking points, none offers a simplified diagnosis of a character's suffering. Instead, they reveal the multifaceted impact that mental illness can have on both the sufferer and their loved ones. Clare furthermore suggests that no one is completely defined by how well--or not--their brain functions. Tender yet occasionally biting, Disasters in the First World ekes narrative poetry out of tragedy. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor

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