Harriet Richards’ The Pious Robber presents its readers with eight stories that will mesmerize, disturb, and delight. Every story in the collection strikes to the bone, and is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized. One will be tempted to read the collection in one sitting, though the depth of the stories provides much fruit for multiple readings, honest reflection, and some animated and imaginative discussion. Richards is blessed with an unimpeachable understanding of illness, childhood, family, loss, and human psychology. Her narration is cool and detached, her dialogue crisp and seamless. This work is weighty and balanced: highly observant, darkly comic, and always fascinating.
This collection especially shines where it examines human frailty within the accepted boundaries that mark convention, produce (unwanted?) self-knowledge, and touch that squishy place in our psyche where we are most vulnerable and recriminatory. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments in the stories “Tangible Reminders” and “Sometimes it Seemed”. These seem to be the moments in which intelligent people must work with the seemingly harmless social and cultural excesses that make day-to-day life a minefield. In “Tangible Reminders”, the main character, Alicia, looks through old items, attempting to re-order her new life. As she does this, she reflects upon her recent divorce and several encounters with her ex-husband, his lover, and a neurotic co-worker. All of these encounters, like that with the sandwich-maker in “Sometimes it Seemed”, are rife with comic inevitability and a wry sense that some people seem to be built for the purpose of withstanding grief, loneliness, the lack of consideration of others, and the accompanying sense of dread.
The stories in this collection that focus on the daily lives of its characters are as poignant as snapshots, as cardiograms of human trauma and feeling. However, there are also stories that deal with the more concrete loss of loved ones: to murder, in “In the Direction of the Three Sisters”, and to inescapable circumstance, in “The Blue She Needed”. The losses in these stories are devastating and unforgettable. Both stories are narrated by survivors who knew the lost ones. In “The Blue She Needed”, the narrator is a benevolent friend, with an astute and intelligent eye for those differences in human behaviour that, in retrospect, merit closer scrutiny. Again, Richards’s knack for observing her characters makes this a rich and touching story. In “In the Direction of the Three Sisters”, a mysterious narrator recalls the actions of three sisters, each of whom exercises her own unique influence over tragic events. The narrator in this story is an outspoken outsider suffering from an illness, lending the story a sinister feeling that it is being overheard, witnessed in the telling.
While the collection, as a whole, is very strong, the highlight is undoubtedly “The Pious Robber”, the title story. In this story, the landscape plays a central role. It exercises a mysterious power over the imaginations of two young girls and the unfortunate drifter who stumbles into their world. It is utterly sublime.
This collection should not be missed.
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