Reviewed by Alice Farrant
Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash is a collection of short stories set in New York City. Each explores a disconnection between parents and children, lovers or friends, predominantly due to age, disaster, or significant change. A thread of heartbreak strings each story to the next like a row of melancholic bunting. Armed with an uncomfortable edge, Barbash laces these stories with a blunt realism ready to jolt you from any form of comfortable reading. Whether people are cruel or life is unfair, Barbash demonstrates how this can bring us together and tear us apart.
I expected to spend a while reading Stay Up With Me, mulling over each story before being able to approach the next. However, Barbash captures you and refuses to let you go until you finish the book. Experiencing what feels like a literal slice of someone’s life, each story is as engrossing as if you were to see years unfold. Evidence that it isn’t the ending of a story that is important: closure is dull in comparison to disruption. No more than a glimpse of each story is needed to capture an entire picture of the before and after.
Some of the stories are lugubrious, streamed from inside the mind of the character as they deal with the trauma of ailing parents or broken relationships. Others are creepy. Letters From the Academy is subtly psychological as a tennis instructor becomes heavily involved in a student’s life. It is depicted through letters from the teacher to the student’s father, and the reader is separated from the action by an unavoidable hindsight. It was only a few pages long, yet it was enough to shift its way under my skin.
The Break remains my favourite, the moment a mother realises her son is an adult and attempts to cling to the child. This was closely followed by Howling at the Moon and Her Words, which follow a similar vein. All of them are brilliant and one would not feel as imposing without the others to accompany them. So different, but all tuning into the overall tone of the collection. Not all the stories will amaze you, some will find you ambling through waiting for the next. Where Barbash can grip you one moment he can miss you the next, depending on your preferences.
New York, the city that never sleeps, is the perfect setting for these pockets of time. The city becomes a character in itself, either reinvigorating or sucking the life from the characters that inhabit it. You’ll finish the book both drained of emotion and surprisingly alive; it is the subtlety of each moment that pulls your mind apart without you realising. These are events that could happen to you, will happen to you, that knowledge prepares you and it also fills you with a little dread.
Stay Up With Me is perfect for short story beginners and enthusiasts alike. I never thought I would be able to embrace a story of less than 100 pages, and Barbash has proved that assumption wrong.
Tom Barbash, Stay Up With Me (Simon and Schuster UK: London, 2014). 978-1471128424, 224pp., hardback.