Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Ile Forest" (1976)

Story by Ursula K. Le Guin not available online.

This story feels more like a fairy tale than a short story, let alone science fiction. The only thing "speculative" about it is the setting, an imaginary land in Central Europe. It's told essentially first-person, although there is a frame that introduces us to the narrator. He is a doctor, and he comes to a remote village with his sister to set himself up in practice. He notices a strange and beautiful mansion in a section of forest on his arrival, one of the features that makes him want to settle there. After the doctor and his sister have been there awhile, he is called to treat the master of the mansion. The master is close to death but, with the doctor's help, survives, and they become friends. The master lives by himself. He was married once but his wife ran away with another man, and now he prefers to live by himself. But—can you guess?—in short order the master and the doctor's sister have fallen in love and are thinking of marriage. But something about the master's story of simply accepting that his wife ran away doesn't sit right with either the doctor or his sister. Getting to the bottom of the man's mysterious past is the main thrust of this story, which proceeds serenely. It feels like a fairy tale, as I say, or at least much older than the 20th century. Part of that is the imaginary setting and the way the story moves. For example, a doctor traveling and living with his sister this way seems quaint, even eccentric, but also likely more normal in times past. Then there is all the careful narrative nesting. The master's story is recounted by the doctor many years after the events described. It's not the doctor's story at all nor even his sister's, but the master's. Multiple layers have to be pulled away to get at it. Yet it doesn't feel cute or overdone for effect in any way. At points it reminded me of Bram Stoker's Dracula, at points it reminded me of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Yet there is little if anything that is supernatural or fantastic going on here. The master is left somewhat murky—I had the impression, when he was battling his illness, that he had to be an old man. Yet he is young enough or vigorous enough to attract a woman who is no older than her 30s at most. It feels in many ways like a straightforward romantic tale, yet there is something deeply disturbingly wrong about it too and I can't put my finger on exactly what that could be. A good one.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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