I have a lot to thank George Saunders for. I was a short-story sceptic, a committed chain-gobbler of the full-fat novel, until the release of his celebrated Tenth of December collection back in 2013. That book was so heavily lauded and so often recommended that I bought a copy, and was escorted into a vast genre that I had completely misunderstood and have since come to love.
In Saunders’ own work, he typically creates warped worlds – sometimes just slightly off-track from everyday life, sometimes psychedelically so – in which his characters are confronted by outlandish moral dilemmas.
The Semplica Girl Diaries from Tenth of December is one such extraordinary creation: a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses tale in which a financially embarrassed father copies wealthier neighbours in buying girls from third-world countries to hang as ornaments in his family’s front garden. Bizarre, upsetting, but asking some big questions too.
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Saunders is a master craftsman, a writer’s writer. It’s no surprise that he also runs an in-demand creative writing class at Syracuse University. Lucky students. For the rest of us, there’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
Even if you have no interest in writing, this book will make you a better, more observant and more understanding reader
The book’s subtitle is In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us a Masterclass in Writing and Life, and that’s true up to a point. But the real star of A Swim isn’t Chekhov or Turgenev or Tolstoy or Gogol – it’s Saunders himself.