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"New Women and New Fiction," edited by Susan Cahill (NAL/Mentor: $3.95, paperback; 271 pp.)

June 15, 1986| Madison Smartt Bell | Bell's most recent novel is "Waiting for the End of the World." and

The better a short story anthology is, the more of a nuisance it is to review, because any collection that sums up easily is probably built around some gimmick that arbitrarily limits the range of its contents. Such is very much not the case with Susan Cahill's current selection, "New Women and New Fiction." Even the phrase "new women" is slightly misleading, for as Cahill's useful introductions to each story show, most of these authors have two or more books to their credit, and while they may be less well-known than they should be, they are certainly not newcomers.

There are 21 stories in this volume, each distinctly different from all the others, and together, the group offers a fair sample of what has been accomplished in the short story over the last 20 years. Among the authors are several familiar names. A rare short story by Anne Tyler is included. There is a sharp and covertly comic study of disguised grief by Mary Robison: "I Am Twenty-one." Joy Williams is represented by "Taking Care," a deservedly much-anthologized piece that proves, among other things, that sophisticated technique need not sacrifice feeling to itself.

The two British and the one Indian writer included (Penelope Lively, Fay Weldon, and Anita Desai) will probably be somewhat less familiar to U.S. readers, but their presence adds an important dimension to the volume.

Fay Weldon's "Alopecia" manages to fully unfold the development of a handful of complex relationships over several years, in a strikingly small number of words. At an opposite extreme, Anita Desai's "Games at Twilight" compresses a sense of a whole lived life into the mind of a child at a single moment.

The depth those three writers establish with orthodox narration is suggested by the use of voice in two fine stories in different American vernaculars: Ellen Gilchrist's "Victory Over Japan" and Toni Cade Bambara's "My Man Bovanne."

The voice of Bambara's Miss Hazel, shifting from cunning to a kind of wisdom, summons up a decade of rapid changes in black American consciousness and finally touches the human element behind it all.

Most of these stories are centered on the joys and hazards of ordinary living, but a couple involve extraordinary circumstances, which can move the reader toward both pity and terror. Sallie Bingham's "Fear" is a heart-stopping look at child abuse that shows just how close that phenomenon can come to home. In "The Shawl," Cynthia Ozick brings the Holocaust back into being with an account of a mother's doomed effort to keep the existence of her infant, Magda, secret in the midst of a concentration camp. The shawl, which is Magda's sole comfort and concealment, is transformed into such a magical fabric that it alone is worth the price of admission to this book.

A few of the stories touch on the craft of writing, ranging from the chic fatuity of Lorrie Moore's "How to Become a Writer" to Jean Thompson's more serious study of the creative ego in "Applause, Applause."

But the most resonant remark about what stories can do comes about apropos of another subject, when the narrator of Ellen Wilbur's "Faith" considers how her unrepentant passion for her illegitimate child has changed her: "Even moments of great pain and disappointment have been transformed, given an importance and a dignity they never had at the time, as if whatever happens and wherever I have failed may one day be redeemed in the far future." It is just such intimations of transformation and redemption that the best of this group of stories can convey.

"New Women and New Fiction" is a fine anthology, with sufficient scope to suggest the variety of possibilities of artistic accomplishment and also of real life. That the stories are all by women is not, in the end, a crucial factor. This work is neither feminist nor feminine in any limiting sense; it is just good writing.

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