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Originally published Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Book review

Karen Joy Fowler's fine new story collection, 'What I Didn't See,' moves from ordinary to fantastical and back

Karen Joy Fowler's fine new story collection, "What I Didn't See," explores a variety of worlds, from a post-World-War-I archaeological dig to a boarding school for delinquent girls.

Seattle Times arts writer

'What I Didn't See and Other Stories'

by Karen Joy Fowler

Small Beer Press, 197 pp., $24

The dozen spry, tricky narratives in Karen Joy Fowler's new collection, "What I Didn't See and Other Stories," encompass a variety of worlds.

To name just a few: a commune whose leader claims that he and his followers are immortal (in "Always"); an archaeological dig in post-World War I Iraq, as seen by a photographer who's troubled by free-floating murderous thoughts ("Private Grave 9"); and a boarding school for delinquent girls that can't possibly be what the girls' parents had in mind ("The Pelican Bar").

In all these stories, Fowler ("Sarah Canary," "The Jane Austen Book Club") delights in luring her readers from the walks of ordinary life into darker, more fantastical realms. There, as one of her characters remarks, "Your eyes no longer impose any limit on the things you can see."

While a tale or two borders on the cryptic, most trigger shadowy epiphanies as they alight on moments of perfect ambiguity or oblique revelation.

"The Last Worders," for instance, is a sort of doppelgänger story about two teenage girls "doomed to a lifetime of each-otherness." On one level, it concerns the competition that surfaces between them as they travel overseas together. But the continual refrain of the narrator ("I know this is what she felt because it's what I would have felt") and the bizarre nature of the tourist town the girls visit lift "Worders" into a provocatively unreal realm. Ultimately, this offbeat travelogue is a sly parable about losing your sense of self while en route to elusive destinations.

Several of the tales, especially those about disappearances, focus on stories in our lives that will always be left incomplete. In the title story — about two women who are part of a natural-history expedition in Africa — the narrator tries to pinpoint the hidden meaning in her last exchange with her female companion who goes missing shortly afterward.

"I've been over the conversation so many times," she says, "I no longer remember it at all."

Two stories find Fowler mining a historical-fiction vein as successfully as she did in "Sarah Canary" and her PEN/Faulkner Award finalist "Sister Noon." Both take sidestepping paths around Lincoln's assassination, by tracing its fallout on John Wilkes Booth's family (in "Booth's Ghost") and seeing the assassin through the eyes of his landlady's smitten daughter (in "Standing Room Only"). Like Beryl Bainbridge, Fowler has a knack for making historical events come vividly alive by immersing the reader in the blinkered confusion of the people who experienced them.

One or two stories fall marginally short of the high standards set by their companions. But Fowler's closing story, "King Rat," is a masterpiece. Reading more like a personal essay than fiction, it pays eloquent tribute to "the two men I credit with making me a writer."

Here's a volume that serves as a fine introduction to Fowler, if you haven't come across her before — and one that will deeply satisfy fans who've been with her from the beginning.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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