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Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)


One of the primary challenges that the short story writer faces is establishing setting and developing characterisation within such a condensed word limit. Whereas a novel can meander off on tangents, a short story is a snapshot, capturing a fleeting instant in print. Carver transforms this apparent shortcoming into a strength in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In the collection’s opening stories, the author avoids naming his protagonists and opts instead for depersonalised expressions such as “the girl”/“the boy”. This anonymity creates a sense of universality, which allows the reader to permeate Carver’s dissonant diegetic universe more easily.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’s sparse, simple style seems to be a nod to Hemingway’s similarly stripped back prose. Its unwavering adoption of the present tense heightens immediacy – just as Hemingway’s does. This is particularly effective in the more emotionally demanding stories like Gazebo, where the sharp pain of infidelity is conveyed with exclamatory dialogue, or the awkward fumbling for conversation between the estranged father and son in Sacks.

When leafing through the anthology, I was surprised by its subject matter, which consistently deviates from classical literary presentations of love. Having expected high-flung romances, Carver’s narratives (marred by shattered promises and petty jealousies) are jarring in their ugliness, rendering What We Talk About When We Talk About Love much more quotidian and, consequently, much more human. On the whole, the stories – most notably The Bath and Tell The Women Where We’re Going – are not neatly sutured at their conclusions, leaving us to fill in the gaps.

The palpable discord that runs through the collection reaches its climax in the eponymous tale, whose philosophical insights delve whole-heartedly into the nature of love, lust and companionship. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love unveils the sordid underbelly of intimacy, showing love to unravel like threads in a loose-knit jumper.

By Yasmin Omar

Title: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories
Author: Raymond Carver
Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries / Vintage Books (first published 1981)
Edition: Paperback  
Pages: 176
ISBN: 0679723056 (ISBN13: 9780679723059)



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