cover image The Ugliest House in the World: Stories

The Ugliest House in the World: Stories

Peter Ho Davies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $20 (230pp) ISBN 978-0-395-78629-1

The eight stories in this first collection from British-born Oregonian Davies promise to keep you on your toes. They start benignly, often comically, but inevitably there comes a moment when, with the briefest of phrases, Davies startles the reader with a sudden turn down some melancholy and sometimes treacherous path. The excellent title story seems at first a gentle account of a son visiting his ailing father in the countryside of Wales. The narrative unfurls gradually, and it is a shock when the reason for the visit is suddenly revealed: the funeral of a six-year-old boy who died when the stone gatepost on the father's property collapsed on him. Here, as in other tales, Davies delivers the full import of events with haunting realism. Not all of the stories are so blue. A series of plot twists produce several delightful surprises in ""I Don't Know, What Do You Think?"" in which Clive, who is still recovering from the death of his daughter, begins working at a suicide hotline, befriends a transsexual named Mary and finds himself concealing Mary's secret from his wife. Settings that range from England to Patagonia, Africa and Asia are home to an appealing variety of characters whose voices are as distinctive as their accents. The book's one slight disappointment is the novella ""A Union,"" an affecting but melodramatic account of a strike at a Welsh slate quarry in 1899. But in the main, Davies wields words with precision and delicacy, crafting stories admirable for their spare style, taut prose and arresting images. Author tour. (Sept.) FYI: Two of these stories appeared in editions of The Best American Short Stories.