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The Stories In 'Bright Shards' Glimmer With Empathetic Power

Bright Shards of Someplace Else is Monica McFawn's first collection of short stories, and it's already won this year's Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Perhaps it was her idiosyncratic voice, or her flair for distinctive characters that the judges recognized. Or maybe it was her empathetic power. Either way, McFawn has talent. In these 11 stories she manages to range from fantastic to satiric to poignant.

The first piece, "Out of the Mouths of Babes," is about Grace, a loopy nanny whose new charge is a 9-year-old boy with eczema. She listens to the mother's description with a touch of weary cynicism: "He was a young rash, an articulate and bratty rash, a high-maintenance and oh-so-special rash." Grace skips the "awkward joviality" of "the first one-on-one discussion" and hits the liquor cabinet.

But this boy is special. Before long he is on the phone, negotiating Grace's cellphone overcharges down, handling her gambling debt, her legal troubles and her feud with her sister with a disconcerting skill. The boy seems to "have been born foreseeing all the complications and all the ways out," Grace muses. But she surrenders to his power and the result is an eerie journey for the reader.

The central image in "Dead Horse Productions" is a levitating dead horse that hovers over its own grave. It's a snowy day as the protagonist, whose ailing mother owns the horse, and Fran, his mother's fanatical "acolyte," attempt to bring it to ground, she through esoteric massage, and he through the brute power of a backhoe.

In a second story devoted to a horse, McFawn describes Snippet, an 11-year-old pony rehabbed by the two female founders of Heart's Journey, an "equine rescue nonprofit." Known as the "Painting Pony," he was "trained to lift a brush in his mouth, dip it into a bucket of paint, and press it to a large sheet of paper. Then he broke his leg."

As Snippet hangs from a sling in the barn aisle, his front leg in a cast, his owners and vets consider his fate. Is it time for Snippet to cross the "Rainbow Bridge ... animal rescuer parlance for the interfaith zone where dead animals go, the sphere where old, unsteady horses are restored to an eternal youth?" One of the women, Marti, squeezes her eyes shut and watches the flashes of light: "They were bright shards of someplace else, she always thought as a kid, evidence of another world peeping through."

Those brilliant flashes are echoed in McFawn's final story. "The Chautauqua Sessions," brings us a last moment of shimmering grace, a masterpiece of emotional acuity. The story tracks a washed-up lyricist who has reunited with his more successful rock buddy for a chance to refresh his musical life, only to face the possibility of being upstaged by his druggie son. He can't write without accidentally quoting his son's words. "It's as if his lovely phrases have colonized my mind and pushed everything out," he says.

Embedded in these tales of ordinary people — a new employee forced to fire an incompetent coworker at Journey's End Memorials, a company which makes "videos of deceased loved ones to play at funerals;" an actor on his way home after a performance full of improvisations; a mathematical theoretician working for a company that sells butterflies to be released at weddings and other events — are carefully observed human details and momentous surprises. Like the ceremonial butterflies, these characters are all "centers of possibilities, small little suns whose linear rays represented every possible flight, every downward dive their life cycle-end might take."

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Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.