Review: King of the Gypsies by Lenore Myka

Author Lenore Myka’s debut collection of short stories, King of the Gypsies, recently won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, resulting in a publication contract from BkMk Press. And while her collection is full of many things today’s short fiction readers love – interconnected stories with reoccurring characters; a focus on action over introspection – Myka is inconsistent with one key regard, a regard that never goes out of fashion: emotional connectedness.

There is plenty to love in this collection. Myka spent three years in Romania in the early 90s as a Peace Corps volunteer, and she mines that experience for rich subject material. We open with the story of Dragos, a young man left by his mother at an orphanage who escapes and journeys across the city to his old apartment – only to find it occupied by a stranger. There are stories of young women subjected to the cruelty of life in a brothel, stories of well-intentioned teachers and volunteers from the United States who learn to navigate life in another culture.

These stories are interesting and clearly written, but they read as though the author is keeping her characters at arm’s length: as readers, we can see them, we can witness their day-to-day lives, but we don’t connect with them beyond the voyeurism.

However, there are a few bright exceptions, most notably “Song of Sleep” where we revisit Dragos, now an adult farmer married to an American. When his wife’s parents come to visit them in rural Romania, the cultural differences between he and his wife surface, and he becomes anxious that she will return to the States with her family.

In this story, we see the Myka’s true artistry: her staples (the exotic setting, the feelings of displacement) are there, but there are also poignant moments of depth provided to each character, such as when Dragos’ wife reflects on her husband’s boyish nature, and when Dragos is intrigued by his wife’s parents: As an orphan, “he has never been aware of looking or sounding the same as anyone else in the world.”

These heartbreaking, honest moments bring the characters to life. And if Myka continues writing in this manner her stories will be more than fashionable – they’ll be timeless.