Fans of Matthew Kneale's historical saga "English Passengers," which won the Whitbread Book of the Year 2000 Award and was shortlisted...

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“Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance”


by Matthew Kneale

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,

208 pp., $22

Fans of Matthew Kneale’s historical saga “English Passengers,” which won the Whitbread Book of the Year 2000 Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, be forewarned. A short-story collection, such as “Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance,” is very different. That said, relax and enjoy the fact that Matthew Kneale has mastered both genres.

This collection of 12 stories is unified and bound thematically by the portrayal of people on the cusp of a new awareness of the trajectory of their lives, or by a moment or event that changes the equation for them.

The stories take place all over the world: China, Ethiopia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. For some, it is the dislocation of being in a strange place that causes the introspection necessary for change. For others, no external change takes place, but the interior landscape is forever altered.

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In the first story, “Stone,” a conventional English family, used to traveling with a “tour firm,” goes off on their own with dire consequences — not for themselves but for a hapless young man they think stole from them. This isn’t a language problem; it is cultural difference writ large.

In “Leaves,” gringo planes spray pesticide, destroying most of the crops in a Colombian valley, forcing relocation on those who live there. One family is saved by their old grandfather who steals coca plants, the only crop that was saved, from a neighbor. Their new life begins elsewhere with, one wonders, what results?

In “Metal,” an arms supplier from Great Britain is caught up in a demonstration in Africa, bloodied with a nightstick and brought face-to-face with violence and terrorism. The morning after, awakening in the safety of his hotel, “He knew, without a shadow of doubt, that his life would never be the same. He would give up his job. He would change everything.” But does he?

The final story, “White,” is one that will not be forgotten. A young Palestinian suicide bomber, with explosives strapped to his body, makes his way to Tel Aviv to kill himself and as many of them as possible. He must do this to assuage his guilt because he has spoken to and walked with Rachel, who is one of them, because his uncle has sold them property. This is the only way to restore his family’s good name. He is crippled by doubt and fear; he recalls his brother’s call from Canada telling him of his new life there and inviting him to join him.

Kneale has captured in 12 stories, simply told, the complexity of the world and the ways that people cope, or not, showcasing situations of moral ambiguity where roads not taken make all the difference.