Patricia Engel’s new short story collection The Faraway World is a fitting follow-up to her 2021 novel Infinite Country, which became a bestseller and was a Reese’s Book Club Pick. In The Faraway World, Engel continues to confront the themes and concerns raised in her most recent novel, but in a wider range of settings and situations. The stories of The Faraway World take place in the United States, Cuba, and Colombia, and often depict immigrant characters moving between these countries; some do have similarities to Infinite Country, but none are mere repetition.
Of the ten stories in the collection, only “Libélula” has not been previously published. Among the others are stories that have appeared in Harvard Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, and Kenyon Review. Three have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories: “Ramiro” in 2016, “Campoamor” in 2017, and “Aguacero” in 2019. Yet another — “Aida” — was included in The Best American Mystery Stories (2014). “Aguacero” was also honored with inclusion in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2019. With so many of the stories in The Faraway World singled out for honors, it should be no surprise that the collection lives up to Engel’s well-deserved reputation.
Most of the stories focus on a pair of characters or a close relationship, but each relationship is complicated by the circumstances of the characters, by secondary relationships, and by the events of the story. Some of the relationships are familial, others are romantic, and still others defy such labels. As one character puts it, “Love doesn’t need to be exquisite for it to be true.” The many different versions of love that Engel presents in these stories are often true but very rarely exquisite, and they are often characterized by loss or indecision.
The first story in the collection — “Aida” — is a perfect opening story because its mystery elements make it impossible to put down. A young woman has gone missing, and her twin sister narrates the story. Their parents are Colombian immigrants, and the police assume that the missing girl, Aida, is a runaway. Sightings of Aida are reported, but of course, locals are just seeing her twin, the narrator. Through the narrator’s depiction of her sister, Aida continues to seem present, even though she is gone.
A similar ghostliness is referenced in “Libélula” when the narrator says “You wanted a ghost, a shadow to move about your home anticipating your every need.” Indeed, “Libélula” is one of my personal favorites in the collection because of its unusual narration. The narrator is a Colombian immigrant to New York working for another Colombian immigrant, and the entire story is told in direct address from the narrator to her employer. Her feelings about her employer are complicated, but readers can’t understand the full scope of the complications until the end. Though the employer is largely absent from the events of the story, the direct address causes her to feel present, and readers may feel aligned with the employer through the pronoun “you” which refers to her but is read by us.
In “Aida” and “Libélula,” Engel sets up a mystery about what has happened, but in other stories, the mystery is what will happen next. In “Fausto,” a young woman’s boyfriend convinces her to help him move drugs. In “Guapa,” a factory worker spends her vacations traveling to Colombia for plastic surgery. In “Ramiro,” a priest supervises a young man who has recently been released from prison. In each of these, the characters long for a change in their situation. Many of the stories in The Faraway World depict characters who want to go to the United States, others are longing for home, and still others are forced home by circumstances. Because most of the stories have somewhat open endings, readers are left to wonder whether the characters will get where they want to go and whether they will be happy when they get there.
“The Book of Saints” is one of the only stories with a clear happy ending. The narration alternates between a man and a woman who meet and marry through an agency which pairs American or European men with Colombian women. The two juxtaposed perspectives allow readers to fill in gaps and understand more about their relationship than we could from a single perspective. A reader’s assumptions — even prejudices — and romanticism might lead them to expect the relationship between these characters to evolve or devolve in stereotypical ways, and Engel sets readers up for such assumptions. Early in the story, the man says, “To be honest, all the girls on the website looked really similar,” and the woman says, “It didn’t bother me to sleep with him.” This does not seem to bode well for their relationship, but while there are disagreements and turning points, the ending of this story is one of the most distinctively positive in the entire collection.
While I do have my personal favorites, none of The Faraway World’s stories feel like filler. The brief overviews above suggest the range of Engel’s stories, and each reader will find their own favorites within the collection. Each story is compelling in its own way. Engel’s writing has a propulsive effect, carrying readers forward, and her characters are fascinating. We may not want to spend time alone with all of them, but we cannot look away from their stories.
The Faraway World: Stories
By Patricia Engel
Avid Reader Press
Published January 24, 2023