Aimee Bender knows a thing or two about enchantment. Bender, who counts the work of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm among her influences, writes short stories and novels that frequently read like modern fairy tales. Her work is often poetic and occasionally surreal, and though her stories don’t begin with “once upon a time” or end with “happily ever after,” the results are whimsical and full of magic.
Bender has been a strong literary presence since her 1998 debut, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and her new short story collection, The Color Master (Doubleday, $26), showcases the writer at the very top of her game.
In “Appleless,” Bender deftly combines insatiable appetites and biblical allusion in a powerful story of innocence lost. Hans Hoefler is the main character in “The Fake Nazi,” a man obsessed with pleading guilty to war crimes he did not commit. The secretary of the judge who hears his confessions takes pity on Hoefler and decides to investigate the profound guilt that haunts an innocent man.
In “Tiger Mending,” two closely knit sisters travel to Kuala Lumpur where one of the sisters—a gifted seamstress—is given the job of sewing the stripes back on tigers. The story was inspired by an Amy Cutler painting, and Bender has created two sisters, as different as the alternating stripes on a tiger, who rely on each other for everything until their individual strengths are revealed.
In “Faces,” William’s mother is alarmed when he cannot name any of his friends from school. After a visit to the doctor, it’s clear William suffers from some kind of facial illiteracy. Of course, the story has less to do with how William perceives others and everything to do with how he perceives the sad members of his family: his out-of-work mother, his absent father, his younger sister.
The Color Master is essentially a companion piece to Perrault’s “Donkeyskin,” the story of a princess who demands an impossible wardrobe (three different dresses: the color of the sky, the moon and the sun) to delay her father’s wedding proposal. Bender’s clever reimagining focuses on the group of artists tasked with creating the gowns, and the results are unforgettable.
In “The Devourings,” a human wife leaves her ogre husband after a family accident. The ogre gives his wife a magic cloak and a special cake, and the unique qualities of those gifts—along with the ogre’s special bond with his wife—are slowly revealed over time.
Bender has a real gift for uncovering the true essence of things and the 15 short stories in The Color Master demonstrate her considerable skill at spinning the straw of everyday life into gold. ★★★★☆