Gillian Skeen-McKee’s Sketches from Life delivers a collection of eclectic stories set in South Africa and around New York, often focusing on troubled relationships and vulnerable animals.
The collection opens with “The Ship,” in which a surgeon recalls a time in the 1980s when a Russian ship came into a South African port with a patient diagnosed with appendicitis. The surgeon is instantly attracted to the female Russian doctor accompanying the patient. But looming over everything is the suspicious Russian ship captain, who threatens to return the patient to the ship untreated.
In “Wheels of Fortune,” a woman believes she’s wasted her time seeing a psychic who seemed focused only on the past, then learns the psychic was eerily prescient. And in “The Art Dealer,” a woman visiting her daughter discovers she lives in a house nearly devoid of furnishings with a rude, snobbish husband.
Skeen-McKee’s writing style is relaxed and confident, the stories frequently grounded in historical and cultural details, such as in “The Road to Hell,” where the author writes of Swartberg Pass, a road built to help connect an isolated community. But once residents can easily leave, they stay away, prompting one character to quip, “… the ‘road to hell’ is not actually paved at all, being just gravel and stone, [sic] figuratively speaking, it was truly paved with good intentions.”
The stories are generally well written, but many are more slice-of-life tales than plotted stories with memorable takeaways. And while two stories are nonfiction, the only indication is in fine print on the copyright page, leading to confusion for anyone overlooking the note. For example, in “Under the Baobab,” the story is narrated by Gilly, but while it seems to be memoir, it’s fiction. There are also minor editing errors, such as “peaked” where “piqued” is likely meant.
That said, these stories are largely interesting and remind readers of how times change and, with them, relationships and culture.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.