Book Review: Disasters in the First World: Stories by Olivia Clare


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

bk - disasters in the first world


Category: General Fiction (Adult), Short Stories

Author: Olivia Clare

Format: E-book via NetGalley, 192 pages

Publisher: Grove Atlantic

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2661-0

Pub Date: June 6, 2017


Summary from Publisher:

Olivia Clare’s delightfully strange and tender debut traces the intersection of larger-than-life forces—natural and otherwise—in our daily lives. From siblings whose relationship is as fragile as glass, to a woman grappling with both an emotional and physical drought, to a superstitious spouse fearful of misfortune, Disasters in the First World explores the real and the fantastical, environmental and man-made calamities, and the human need to comprehend the possible, the probable, the unknown.

Deeply nimble and perceptive, Clare delves into the tumultuous depths of human emotion as well as the messiness of relationships, unmasking the most revealing moments of connection—no matter how fleeting. In “Pittsburgh in Copenhagen,” a man and a woman confront infidelity and estrangement as they share one last night together. “Pétur” tells the tale of a son who takes his mother on an Icelandic vacation only to be trapped together in close quarters by a volcanic eruption. “Rusalka’s Long Legs” follows a young girl’s treacherously long walk through the woods with her unpredictable mother. And in “The Visigoths,” an older sister finds a way to break through to her brother who struggles to fit in.

With outstanding precision and grace, the thirteen stories in this collection uncover truths beneath both actual and imagined disasters. They each exist as exquisite and mysterious universes—and through their intimate, profoundly moving worlds, Clare’s clarity of voice rises as a distinctive and masterful new talent.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

The unfortunate demise of the short story is that it is terribly underrated as a genre. As a creative writer who studied English Literature and Creative Writing in university, I was privy to the hard-earned politic of the short story and poetry workshops inevitable to earning those degrees.

And while longer, flushed out novels are largely popular, it’s their older sister, the short story, which is not only more difficult to write for its critical voice, paced movement, and thoughtful, active plots, but essentially for its succinct and shorter form.

The short story is the foundation of every writer’s ability—and if you fail there, you fail as a writer. Period. If a writer can’t write a good 1,500-word short story, how can you expect the writer to write an even interesting 300-page novel? It’s just not done. At least not successfully.

Which is why I applaud Olivia Clare’s ambitious 13-short story collection, Disasters in the First World.

Each individual story is superb in its craft: from Pétur’s serious tone and dark, revelatory secrets; to the character, Blake’s, high-functioning intelligence in The Visigoths; to the subversive terror invoked by Cullen in the story, Olivia; or the unnerving imagination of Del in Rusalka’s Long Legs.

And those are only four stories.

It’s clear in Clare’s writing that her narrative style is adept, exactly aware that what is required to share with her readers and what is omitted is just as significant in not only moving a story along in its plot or revelations, but in also what she would like readers to be left with to imagine. In each of Clare’s stories is an underlying story, driven by real dialogue and strange and sometimes broken, yet eccentric and fascinating characters.

While the plots in the stories themselves reveal the imminent dangers of conflict, the heart of her stories, too, are the characters in relationship or tension with one another, and how they articulate themselves and their understanding. The characters, like the writing, is mature—with serious themes like sickness, mental illness, love, desire, yearning, injustice.

There’s the shift in the knowledge of Tristan’s creatinine levels in the story Creatinine; the ingratiating behaviour inevitable between a potential daughter-in-law with her boyfriend’s hermitic mother in Two Cats, the Chickens, and Trees; the battle of coping with the anxiety and depression of a loved one shown in the incessant email conversations of the story, Things that Aren’t the World; or the estranged silences, which verbalize yearning, yet repression in Pittsburgh in Copenhagen.

Memory and nostalgia play crucial roles in Clare’s stories, too, from childhood play in Quiet! Quiet!; to the desperate need for company and touch in the loneliness of the destitute in the story, For Strangers; to the distant nonchalance, yet mature awareness of Nola in Santa Lucia; to the random beauty and unlikelihood found in the travesty of Little Moon; to the self-indulgent exuberance of hope and recklessness in the Eye of Water.

If you’re unfamiliar with short stories as a genre, this strong collection will not only introduce you to the wonder of this form, but induce you into a new following. These stories are enjoyable as they are intriguing and most importantly, excellently written. It’s clear that Olivia Clare is a gifted writer with the imagination and depth that writers—and readers—aspire to read and learn from. This may be her debut collection of short stories, but she is worthy of the recognition received as such writers before her like J.D. Salinger, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Elizabeth Hay. If you appreciate literary fiction, you’ll be extremely pleased with this collection of rare, dark, yet beautiful stories.


Characters: 5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

Language/Narrative: 4 stars

Dialogue: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-copy of the book, Disasters of the First World by Olivia Clare through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and timely review.


About the Author:

author - olivia clare

Olivia Clare is the author of a book of poems, THE 26-HOUR DAY (New Issues), and a book of short stories, DISASTERS IN THE FIRST WORLD (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic). In fiction, she is a recipient of a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2014 O. Henry Prize. In poetry, she is a recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University. Her stories have appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, Granta, Southern Review, n+1, Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, London Magazine, FIELD, and other journals. She is currently an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Sam Houston State University.

  • From Goodreads


You can connect with Olivia Clare on her official website, on Facebook, on Twitter, and Goodreads.



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