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Short Stories Challenge – Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side by Nathan Englander from the Collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

By Bibliobeth @bibliobeth1

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What’s Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side all about?:

This story is about a Jewish man who is worried that his family is not as interesting as his Bosnian girlfriends. When he digs into his past however, he finds a few stories that surprise him.

What did I think?:

First of all, I have to talk about the difference in the way this story was written compared to the other stories in the collection. The interesting thing about it is that it is compiled of short paragraphs in a numerical list 1-63, which I found a unique way to tell a tale and was instantly intrigued. As it begins, our Jewish (although he has given up his faith) narrator appears to be an onlooker watching a couple and the way they are talking. He is trying to figure out whether they are husband and wife but eventually settles on boyfriend and girlfriend then it turns out that the boyfriend or “little Jew” is actually him. His Bosnian girlfriend is desperately trying to pry information about him regarding his family, whom he regards as fairly ordinary with no exciting or interesting stories to tell.

We find out as the story continues that the girlfriend, or his “Bean,” as he likes to refer to her, has left him:

“45. It ended because another person wants you to need to be with them, with her, specific – not because you’re afraid to be alone.”

Our narrator delves a bit deeper into his past trying to learn as much as he can about his family primarily on his mother’s side. We find out that many things have been suppressed, forgotten or glossed over and emotions typically, in this family are never to be expressed:

“40. Do you want to know how I felt? Do you want to know if I cried? We don’t share such things in my family – we don’t tell this much even. Already I’ve gone too far. And put being a man on top of it; compound the standard secretiveness and shut-downness of my family with manhood. It makes for another kind of close-to-the-vest, another type of emotional distance, so that my Bosnian never knew what was really going on inside.”

Other sad discoveries include the death of his grandfather’s brother at the tender age of eight from a brain tumour. Although that wasn’t exactly the truth of the matter (he died from a cut on his hand which became septic). The family didn’t call a doctor in time so they dealt with their guilt by insisting that it was a brain tumour that afflicted him. Our narrator is spellbound about the family secrets he is unearthing but there is always an undercurrent of doubt about the truth behind them.

For me, I got more enjoyment out of this story by reading it a second time and noticing the smaller details that had escaped me on the first reading. As I mentioned previously I thought the layout of the story was very interesting and made it quite special to read and I loved that there was a mixture of both melancholy and happy moments – a boy peeing on a rabbi’s hat did make me chuckle a bit. The only thing I’m slightly unsure of in this tale is the ending. The author has put a hefty dose of sadness in it which tugs at your heart-strings but for some reason I found it slightly unfinished and was a bit disappointed. Saying that, he is a fantastic writer and I’m looking forward to seeing what he will do next.

Would I recommend it?:


Star rating (out of 5):

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NEXT SHORT STORY: Magpies by Lucy Wood from the collection Diving Belles

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