Bats or swallows? Verbs or nouns? The intent of the title of this lovely tapestry of a short story collection can be taken more than one way, but may contain more than a hint of what is to come. The tales found within are filled with signs and portents that could also be interpreted different ways by the characters. It forces the reader to pay attention and to engage with the choices they do make. To care what happens to them.
The first sentence of each story is like that thread that hangs from the collar of your shirt, one that you can see from the corner of your eye every time you move. You have to pull it. Then as you pull, you find a string of characters that are familiar enough, but also a little bit more. That thread twists a bit or maybe entwines with another. In My Son, the Magician, a psychic who doesn’t have all the answers makes an appearance. In What You Want and What you Need, a man aches to reconcile with his ex. As he helps her paint a room in her new condo, it’s clear it would be a bad decision. In Tin Can Telephone, a woman, newly pregnant, worries about telling her possibly barren friend her good news — but wait — the story is actually about sisters. With a feeling of loss that passes through the threads in our fingers, the title story, Bats or Swallows allows us to experience the loss a young woman feels over the tragic death of her brother.
But these are all simplifications of the textured realness of each of the people the reader encounters. They are imperfect people, people looking for answers in the signs, symbolic and literal, around them. They are not always likable, but this only makes them more engaging. Even the supporting characters are imperfect, searching beings. Vlassopoulos unspools their uncertainties and fears a little at a time, until we are left with a mass of delicate colour in our hands. From this, the women and men we meet must untangle their own fates, signs be damned.
My favourite piece, My Son, the Magician starts with a tremendous hook.
“My son, Jeremy, was usually a fireman, police officer or businessman. I liked it most when he was a businessman, the way he looked in the cut of his suit, his dress shoes all shined.”
You don’t find out what Jeremy’s job really is until a few paragraphs later, but when you do, the payoff is great. Written from his mother’s point of view, it’s easy to identify with not only her concern for her son, but also her wish not to meddle, even if this means letting him make his own mistakes. By the end, we understand why he is introduced in the title as a magician.
These stories are filled with strands of detail and image that hold fast under numerous reads. Find familiar comfort in the pasty colour of a plaster cast or the recognizable sick chlorine-and-shampoo scent that lingers post-swim. But then, feel the helplessness in the sting and itch of a multitude of metaphorical and literal mosquito bites, or in the loss of balance of an earthquake that may or may not have happened.
And therein lies the loveliness and loneliness of these stories. What starts out as a simple thread that you can’t leave alone, becomes not a neat piece of fabric, but a colourful skein of real-life texture.