If wanderlust has got you itching for a change of literary scenery, consider Sabina Murray’s new collection, “Tales of the New World.” These wayfaring stories hitch a ride with people who launch out past the boundaries of their maps. Some of them are legendary, others are relatively unknown, but in one way or another, they all ask, “Why cannot man just travel?”
The collection opens with a fantastic feminist novella called “Fish.” It’s the sort of wry, atmospheric story that fans of this writer’s writer have come to expect since Murray won the PEN/Faulkner Award for her first collection, “The Caprices” (2002), about the Pacific campaign in World War II. Once again, the Filipina American author is looking back into history for inspiration. The heroine of “Fish” is Mary Kingsley, the intrepid explorer who wrote about Africa for eager English readers. We meet her around 1890, caring for her sickly mother in a house whose windows have been bricked over to keep out the light. “London,” Murray writes, “runs on an army of spinsters administering to everyone’s needs: silent, solicitous, free of charge, and bitter.” When her parents both finally die, poor Mary is free, but she knows “a life spent alone with books and dark rooms and imagination has made her quite singular.”
Murray’s portrait of this awkward, droll woman is deeply endearing; you can’t help rooting for her. Refusing to hang around where she’ll quickly be enlisted to care for more sick relatives (there seems to be an infinite supply), Mary decides to take a trip to the Canary Islands. “She will because she has nothing to lose,” Murray writes. “For one brief second she’s euphoric — literally dizzied — by this: her intoxicating life of value to no one. Worthless translates quite narrowly as freedom.” And that freedom awakens her ambition, “an embarrassing thing for any woman, but particularly for her.”
What follows is the story of an extraordinary autodidact traveling, often on foot, through Africa as a trader, nurse or biologist — any occupation that might allow her to venture into places few other Europeans had ever seen. “Why shouldn’t she be foolish?” she thinks. “She’s spent her time thus far being useful to others. Why not expire in the jungle?” These adventures — all true — teeter between comic and terrifying. She faces down ferocious animals, hostile natives and even toxic disapproval from people back home who make her first book, “Travels in West Africa” (1897), a bestseller. When an incredulous gentleman laments that she keeps company with cannibals, Mary shoots back, “Girl’s got to have some fun.”
But of course, it’s no fun to be condescended to, to be “trotted out, a novelty, for entertainment.” Mary feels self-conscious about rumors of her unfeminine behavior, her inelegant manners, her “eccentric beliefs” in the equality of Africans. And this is where the story sports the sort of magical touch Aimee Bender might drop in: One of the novella’s most surprising and effective elements is the flock of fairies that buzz around Mary’s room, delivering a litany of nagging, mocking criticisms. It’s a brilliantly surreal representation of a strong woman’s internalized anxieties.
Unfortunately, the nine short stories that follow this wonderful novella are harder to recommend. Among the more successful ones is “Translation,” about Magellan and the young aristocratic named Pigafetta, who served as his translator. It’s a weirdly affecting, morose comedy about the friendship between a brutal, blustering leader and a gay man who adores him. As in most of the stories in this collection, Murray’s narrator affects a witty, contemporary tone; even the 16th-century characters banter in modern English about the irony of their mission to Christianize the natives while abusing them.
Other pieces capture moments of exotic, vanished places. There’s a mordant story about the last, exceptionally gruesome days of the Aztec Empire, when the ruler of Texcoco is summoned by the king of the Aztecs. Another strange, gripping story is narrated in the feverish voice of a survivor of Jim Jones’s cult in Guyana.
But almost all these short stories leave us wanting more — more information, more development, more story. “The Solace of Monsters,” for instance, shows us Capt. Zimri Coffin lying awake, terrified, reading “Frankenstein.” A few days later, the horror of Mary Shelley’s tale is outdone when his ship rescues the survivors of the Essex, who resorted to cannibalism after a whale shattered their ship. This, of course, is the incident that inspired that leviathan classic of American literature, “Moby-Dick,” but Murray seems unwilling to do anything more with her evocative premise than launch it.
Other stories are predicated on the kind of historical and biographical information that few American readers are likely to possess. “His Actual Mark,” for instance, about the Australian explorer Edward John Eyre, starts with such promise about his trek across “the blank spot where God ran out of ideas and couldn’t be bothered with trees and billabongs and more wildlife than a distant screech from birds digging in the sand.” But then it quickly reaches an emotionally complex ending that requires knowing about Eyre’s troubled career as the governor of Jamaica. (Ten points if you can describe the Morant Bay Rebellion.) Even the narrator jokes that Eyre has become “almost invisible” in the popular mind, so why not help us out a little more? Effective historical novelists know how to fill in obscure context to bring interested readers along; historical short story writers aren’t off the hook just because they’re operating in a more constrained space.
Collections such as “Tales of the New World” make me wish the Kindle let us cherry-pick stories the way iTunes lets us pluck a great song from a mediocre album. In the new world of e-publishing, “Fish” could find a place between feminist masterpieces like “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Wide Sargasso Sea,” but it needs some way to break out of this problematic book and be free.
Charles is The Post’s fiction critic. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
TALES OF THE NEW WORLD
By Sabina Murray
Black Cat. 262 pp. Paperback, $14.95