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Emma’s Hands

by Mary Swan

It’s not often Alice Munro offers a quote to promote an emerging writer, but after delving into the pages of Emma’s Hands, Mary Swan’s stellar first collection of short stories, it’s easy to see why Munro wants people to stand up and notice. Swan is a first-class writer. Small children, dead relatives, and memories populate her stories, as Swan pays tribute to all the senses contained in remembering.

Swan sets her itinerary plainly on the table in her leadoff story, “Hour of Lead,” and carries it through to the last sentence of her final offering, “The Manual of Remote Sensing.” Introducing many of the domestic leitmotifs that run through life, and moving between such locations as an Israeli Kibbutz and an Ontario farm, Swan beautifully navigates the waters of human frailty. All lives are patches of memories tattooed with guilt and regret, as Swan demonstrates.

Swan’s gift lies in her ability to produce succinct, poetic lines that immediately transport the reader to a memory so vibrant it feels like home. Her deft handling of emotions is as welcome as loving arms, reminding the reader that comfort is as vital to life as air. Her brilliant opening lines linger in the mind – hopeful and portentous – ushering the reader forward in anticipation.

Swan crafts her stories with an admirable fluidity, layering the work with carefully chosen metaphors. These metaphors capture non-translatable emotional moments that filtrate down into the physical, highlighting the inarticulate cobwebs we so often want to brush from our minds. This is no small feat.