I picked up Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page several years ago as an advance reading copy, for no particular reason, and then it sat on my shelves for a long time. Even after I started reading it, I thought I might not get around to finishing, but something about it held me and I’m glad it did. I’d share the description, but none of the ones online capture the feeling of the book… It’s a small, creamy book of literary short stories. I suppose I assumed they’d be pretentious vignettes, if I’m honest, but actually they’re moody, travel-themed stories, mostly realistic but often tinged with fantasy or magical realism.
The first three stories are short, and very good, setting the tone of the book, but you don’t yet grasp what you’re getting into. I wavered for a long time, but fortunately I kept going. The fourth story, “The Ancient Siddanese,” is the longest and best in the collection at 24 pages. It’s about an ancient and empty city in an almost Lovecraftian way, but instead of horror and ancient dread there’s a sense of immortal stillness. It tells the story not only of a city and tourists of the future visiting it, but of the first Western traveler to find it and how he interpreted what it meant, as well as what the modern-day tour guide says about the city. You don’t quite know if any of those versions are totally true, but you’re left feeling like you’ve been to Sidda and seen something remarkable. At the same time, she’s commenting on Western “discovery” and ideas of ability/disability. She weaves a lot of things together in a short space and it’s fantastic.
The rest of the stories are quite similar to that one, but usually around 10 pages long, and address different aspects of the travel/tourist concept. They’re short enough that I feel like describing the plots would spoil them, but all of them are good, some amazing, and they all have that same sense of a crystallized vision or moment in time. Like you can see the motes of sand in the air as you move through a scene. Then others are a bit different, in wet settings instead of dry… You wouldn’t think that would make such a difference but it does. Instead of perfect stillness and ancient cities you get the inexorability of the sea, the deep dank dread of fungus in a forest. Each setting is overwhelming and commands belief.
“The Ancient Siddanese,” and perhaps one or two others (“We, the Trees”), would be worth reading on their own because they’re amazing, but the book really works best as a collection. Page and her editors have given a lot of thought to the order of the stories and how they move you from mood to mood. Paradise & Elsewhere isn’t a long book, but it’s an experience worth having, especially if you’re interested in that space between fantasy and realism, feeling like you’ve really been somewhere just a little beyond our daily life. Highly recommended!