Little did I know that the book really had nothing to do with Helsinki or those pesky Roccamatios! The book is actually a collection of short stories that Yann Martel calls some of his better work published before Life of Pi. There are four short stories in all and they are all quite compelling in their own way.
- The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios - Like I said before, this story has very little to do with Helsinki or the Roccamatio family. The story is inspired by a friend of Martel's that died of AIDS. In the story, two college men initially meet with the older of the two mentoring the other in his first year of school. The younger man, Paul, becomes very sick that year and finds out he has AIDS. The older man (the story is told in first person) visits often with him and they decide to make up a story about an Italian family that has immigrated to Helsinki. Their talks help Paul through his illness for a time, and their friendship grows deep as a result of their visits. This was the most vivid of the stories in the book and was quite emotional. I really hurt inside as Paul's health declined. It was a great example of how Martel gives his characters real depth and sympathy. This was my favorite of the four stories.
- The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin, String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton - This story was also masterfully written. On holiday in Washington D.C., the narrator finds himself wandering the streets trying to find something to do while the friend he is visiting works on an important assignment for his work. The narrator eventually finds himself at a rundown theater where there is a sign for an upcoming concert. He decides to go and finds himself in this ramshackle theater listening to Vietnam vets give an interesting concert performance. The story is full of emotion with the narrator so moved by the performance that he follows the composer John Morton to his night job and converses with him. What follows is Morton's poignant tale of his experiences that leave the narrator forever changed. I enjoyed this story quite a bit as well. It showed what humanity really is and how we often don't think twice about small things that have huge impact.
- Manners of Dying - This story is a collection of letters by the warden of Cantos Correctional Institution written to a woman named Mrs. Barlow whose son Kevin has been put to death for crimes he committed. They are different tellings of how Kevin's last evening was spent. I enjoyed how each letter made me see Kevin in a different light and how those last of his precious hours made me judge him in completely different ways. It was definitely worth the time it took to read.
- The Vita Æterna Mirror Company - The last of the short stories is about the narrator and his grandmother. Every time he visits, he feels like his grandma drones on and on with her stories and he characterizes her as something of a hoarder. On one of his visits, he finds a wooden box in the basement that he finds curious. As his grandmother continues her stories, he learns that the box is a mirror machine that requires oil, sand, and memories. The two make a mirror together and he learns something special about the mirror. I also really enjoyed this story once I got to the end. In everything I've read by Yann Martel, he puts something really thoughtful in the story that is convicting in some way. This story was no exception. I wasn't really sure where the story was going until the very last line of the story which made me sigh with satisfaction.
If you love Yann Martel, you'll really enjoy these stories. While they are completely different from Life of Pi, they are just as well executed as his novel. I recently found out that he has a new book called Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel. I am so excited and so glad that I picked up this book when I did. I am not sure I would have looked up Martel to see if he had anything new coming out had I not picked up this collection of short stories. I love his work and can't wait to read more of it.