rev. of The Caprices by Sabina Murray

Issue #87
Spring 2002

The Caprices
Short stories by Sabina Murray. Mariner Books, $13.00 paper. Reviewed by Debra Spark.

The Caprices, Sabina Murray’s ambitious debut collection of stories, largely concerns the lives of men and women in the Far East in the early forties, which is to say, those who were affected by World War II, either by being orphaned and abandoned (in the case of the characters of the title story, who live in a Japanese-occupied town in the Philippines) or by being direct participants in the war. One story tells of an Anglo-Indian man starving to death in a Singapore prison camp; another of an Italian man from Australia and an Irishman from Boston who are marooned in the jungle with a baseball-loving Japanese prisoner of war. Still another story focuses on the life of an Australian man who survives the war, but never gets beyond the trauma of his time laying railroad track as part of a Thai labor camp. Even when the stories are set in more recent decades, the deprivations of war are never far behind. An American widower living in Massachusetts reencounters the Filipino family who rescued him from
a pile of dead men. A Japanese collaborator, living an anonymous life in Manila, becomes embroiled anew with his former accomplice, a man who helped him bury maps that presumably lead to war treasure.

The stories of
The Caprices are first and foremost about the ironies, humiliations, and brutalities of war. Murray is unsparing in her vision of starvation, death, decapitation, and disease. Heads roll (literally, and often) in this book. Men starve to death, fingers are chopped off of bodies, testicles swell up into large grapefruit because of wet beriberi, and men are shot. Such horror can’t be and isn’t lightened by humor. “Laughter,” admits one of the characters, “was strange music.” And yet, Murray’s tight writing, her powerful sense of story, and her passionate urgency prevent tragedy from subsuming art, from making the book too lugubrious to press on. What tugs one forward through even the most painful of scenes is curiosity about where things will end up. Not where things will end up emotionally, exactly, because one knows that in advance, but where things will end up in terms of the stories’ unpredictable plots. What
will happen when the Dutch weapons trader, a longtime expat in Sumatra, reencounters his enemy? What
will the fate of the war treasure be? Because almost all of Murray’s stories are intricately structured between past and present action, one always sees where war leads, where war takes people, as in the remarkable “Order of Precedence,” in which a Brit and Anglo-Indian man once part of the same snobby polo-playing circle meet again at a POW camp. In the title story, a mad girl engineers a second meeting between herself and her father’s murderer. In “Folly,” one sees what happens twenty years after an encounter between a warrior, a weapons trader, and his awkward daughter. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay this collection is that it manages to be intriguing, though emotionally exhausting. It leaves the reader exactly where a war book should: agreeing with the last story’s conclusion, “We must all put down our weapons. It is time to stop.”

Debra Spark’s most recent novel is The Ghost of Bridgetown
(Graywolf, 2001).