The Rock Eaters: Strongest story collection I’ve read in some time

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado

It has been quite a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories that so completely and consistently won me over. I’m typically satisfied if roughly half the stories in a collection work for me and thrilled if three-quarters do. But Brenda Peynado hit it out of the ballpark with The Rock Eaters, with stories that range almost entirely from good (a few) to excellent (most) to wonderfully, lingeringly strange and powerful (many). It’s easily the best story collection I’ve read in years, a must-read mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fabulist fiction, horror, and even a realistic story in there, with all the inherent blurring of genre lines those arbitrary categories convey. Think of a George Saunders or Kelly Link type of story, though Peynado is absolutely her own writer; there is nothing derivative here.

The book’s strengths are both plentiful and sharply honed. The premises are strikingly original and magnificently strange in ways that veer from endearing to horrifying. Emotional range is equally wide, presenting and also evoking poignancy, grief, anger, a deep sense of loss, sexual attraction, confusion, yearning, and more, with a concordant tonal spectrum as well, with some stories falling with a gentle softness onto the reader and others with bruising and sudden force, like a sharpened stone hurled with furious intent.

Many of the stories circle around the same themes/topics, including race, immigration, xenophobia, violence and desire (particularly adolescent), sometimes directly, sometimes through the use of metaphor or allegory, which themselves will run from the (purposely) blunt to the surreal and subtle.

Brenda Peynado

Brenda Peynado

Peynado’s prose is finely tuned and precise, as original as the premises, as sharp as the social commentary, and achingly lyrical in many a spot. And though endings are often a weak spot in short stories, Peynado delivers nearly every time, nailing her endings like Simon Biles at the end of a floor routine.

Normally at this point I’d add in some capsule descriptions / reactions to specific stories, but while that was my plan just a few minutes ago, as I wrote the above I’ve decided that I have no interest in ruining for the reader the joy of coming across each of Peynado’s wondrously weird and affective (and effective) tales, not in fear of mundane plot spoilers but because every reader should have the full enjoyment of coming face to face with each rich scenario cooked up in Paynado’s fertile imagination.

So instead, I’ll just end with declaring I am as sure that The Rock Eaters will be on my Best of 2021 list this year as I am that mine will be far from the only such list where it will appear.

Published in May 2021. A story collection, in the vein of Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, spanning worlds and dimensions, using strange and speculative elements to tackle issues ranging from class differences to immigration to first-generation experiences to xenophobia. What does it mean to be other? What does it mean to love in a world determined to keep us apart? These questions murmur in the heart of each of Brenda Peynado’s strange and singular stories. Threaded with magic, transcending time and place, these stories explore what it means to cross borders and break down walls, personally and politically. In one story, suburban families perform oblations to cattlelike angels who live on their roofs, believing that their “thoughts and prayers” will protect them from the world’s violence. In another, inhabitants of an unnamed dictatorship slowly lose their own agency as pieces of their bodies go missing and, with them, the essential rights that those appendages serve. “The Great Escape” tells of an old woman who hides away in her apartment, reliving the past among beautiful objects she’s hoarded, refusing all visitors, until she disappears completely. In the title story, children begin to levitate, flying away from their parents and their home country, leading them to eat rocks in order to stay grounded. With elements of science fiction and fantasy, fabulism and magical realism, Brenda Peynado uses her stories to reflect our flawed world, and the incredible, terrifying, and marvelous nature of humanity.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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7 comments

  1. I think as soon as my local bookstore opens I’ll be calling to order this.

    A synchronistic aside–while you were reading a book called THE ROCK EATERS, I was reading a book about lichen, which eat rock.

  2. Going on my TBR list!

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    I could learn something from you, Bill, when it comes to restraint as regards spoiling things for potential readers….

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