In her vivid and sly, gentle and wise long anticipated first collection, Delia Sherman takes seemingly insignificant moments in the lives of artists or sailors—the light out a window, the two strokes it takes to turn a small boat—and finds the ghosts haunting them, the magic surrounding them. Here are the lives that make up larger histories, here are tricksters and gardeners, faeries and musicians, all glittering and sparkling, finding beauty and hope and always unexpected, a touch of wild magic.
Sherman’s first collection of short stories collects works published in various venues over the course of two and a half decades, but Young Woman In A Garden has, in some key ways, less variety to it than even many themed anthologies do, not that that’s a bad thing.
All Sherman’s stories are simple, small-scale, very human things; Young Woman In A Garden isn’t interested in the shining chrome gleam of space opera or the grand, flashy magics of epic fantasy, but far more on magical realism, to various degrees and in different kinds. Sherman’s collection is interested in interiority, in people’s emotions and feelings, in how we can better expose and understand those by looking at them through a fantastic lens, rather than in novae for their own sake. If fantasy and science fiction literature is the literature of what-ifs, Sherman’s stories aren’t about societal or universal what-ifs, but about very personal, individual hypotheticals, about the ways the interaction of the fantastic in the lives of people might change them.
The titular story, ‘Young Woman in a Garden’, is one of the stand-out works of the collection. Something between an investigation on the idea of art and who produces it, and a polyamorous queer ghost story, it is told from the perspective of a student doing some work on a (long-dead) lesser-known painter who has been invited to the home of the painter to go through his papers. Sherman traces her explorations and slowly builds in and builds up the supernatural elements of the story, dropping breadcrumbs for the reader both about that and the hidden questions about art and creation that it’s asking, questions that have interesting parallels with those raised in Siri Hustvedt’s The Burning World.
At the other end of the spectrum is the fairy story told in ‘The Faerie Cony-Catcher’, Sherman’s foray into historical fantasy. It is clearly fantastical, largely taking place outside the world, but also written in a sixteenth century style and language that is reminiscent, inevitably, of writers like Shakespeare; focusing on the arrogance and growing self-awareness of a jewelry-maker who has finished his apprenticeship. The man thinks himself very world-weary at the start of the story, as a series of run-ins indicate, but is shown to in fact be out of his depth and overconfident, and the extent to which this is the case is only revealed towards the end of the story. However, Sherman does a double-aversion in the end, evoking and then denying something akin to trans panic, not entirely successfully; the story ends up homophilic but transphobic, albeit clearly without that intention.
This isn’t to say all the stories here have queer text, or even queer subtext; for instance, one of the shortest pieces in the volume, ‘Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride’, deals with a woman whose sexuality is simply left unstated and a general society of heterosexuality. It’s about suitability for marriage, about advice and how sometimes taking it is important, about partnerships and the way people outside a relationship can see better than those in it sometimes, and about the fact that people don’t really change. It’s interesting as a story, in part because of the patois in which Sherman writes it; not gratingly, full of apostrophes, but simply, straightforwardly, honestly, and naturally, which is much better.
I’ve only picked out three here, but they suffice to demonstrate that Sherman’s stories address a range of issues, including racism, sexism, and queer topics, as well as being in some cases stories without explicit interrogation of society; they are all sparkling little gems, and Young Woman in a Garden is a truly spectacular and varied collection as a result.