“If we forget our past … we won’t remember our future.”

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor is a broad picture of America’s early 20th century southern society, characterised by her sharp prose, accurate descriptions of the human condition and thoughtful pinpointing of class and race disparity. Famous for her two novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, as well as her realistic and thoughtful short stories, O’Connor grew up on a farm in Georgia in the 1920s, raised by her family as a devout Catholic before dying of Lupus at the age of 39. She is known as a witty, melodramatic and blunt writer who doesn’t shy away from a tough topic.

This collection of thirty-one short stories is mostly set in the deep south and explore themes of racism, religion, futility, grace, disillusionment, disability, spirituality and the meaning of life. They feature characters from different walks of life and deal with race intersecting in various ways, which may be distressing to some readers. For example, in Everything that Rises Must Converge, O’Connor depicts an old white woman who is delusional and views her subtle racism as benevolence, whereas in The Barber, the patrons of the barber shop are more openly racist and the protagonist struggles with cowardice in standing up for his beliefs.

A common theme in the stories is protagonists who are taught a moral lesson, or have a startling revelation, often right before a sudden or violent plot twist. Even if readers don’t sympathise with O’Connor’s at times pessimistic view of the world shown primarily through her sobering endings and her characters’ glorification of the past, her portraits of human character are undeniably sharp, accurate and poignant, while expertly revealing the motivations of the human heart.

The stories may seem at first like not much is happening, but the inner life of the characters is rich and nuanced as they grapple with existential issues, all while navigating ‘everyday’ situations. Readers will be intrigued with the subtle richness of O’Connor’s prose, how she weaves regular motifs throughout her stories, such as ‘violent eyes’, and crafts simple things like the weather and even clothes to foreshadow the plot and reflect moods and themes of her stories.

The great news it that these short stories don’t have to be read in order and because they bear no connection to one another, they can be read over a flexible period of time as suits the reader.

Although these stories would not be considered uplifting, they present poignant truths about race, class, disability and American society. Think of these stories as a time capsule or a snapshot of history, captured by a woman who lived both within and outside the southern sub-culture to provide unique and interesting social commentary.

Reviewed by: Lil van Wyngaard – Veritatis Publishing

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