The Back Cover

Elysium, Pamela Stewart

The title of Pamela Stewart’s first collection of short stories is a bit perplexing;  “Elysium” comes from Greek mythology and refers to a heaven-like Underworld for righteous souls.  While death does indeed appear in many of these stories (frequently in the form of accidents or suicides), the characters in Elysium are not likely heroes — they include a man who exposes himself in public, a shallow teenage girl who causes a car accident, and a woman with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who flushes her marriage certificate down the toilet.  Stewart forces the reader to witness these uncomfortable moments, and it is often difficult to look away from her complicated, flawed characters.

Many of Elysium’s stories are linked by the combination of pleasure and illness.  The cringe--worthy “Swallow Me Whole” tells the story of Rick, a man with (physical and emotional) heart problems and an obsession with giving oral sex.  “Ham” is equaly squirm-inducing, and opens by describing, “the pink flesh bulging from the slots in the transport trailer...resembled Nola’s legs in fishnet stockings.”  Stewart’s stories are extremely short,  most of them areno more than three to four pages. This strategy is both off-putting and relieving; it is odd to witness private, painful moments in such highly-concentrated doses.  When Stewart’s prose falters, it is because the stories aretoo short and seem like exercises (as in “Pregnant” or “Membership”, both about a quarter of a page in length).

Elysium’s strongest stories offer more than shocking scenarios, and focus on believable characters.  “Le Pain” is about Mildred, a lonely baker with a passion for bread (and a tattoo of bread popping out of a toaster); the gripping “Snow Angels” describes Emily, a new mother struggling with the guilt of witnessing an accidental death.  Anything but angelic, Stewart’s protagonists make Elysium a bold debut.

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