Problems with People by David Guterson

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Problems with People by David Guterson

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stacey Barkley
Reviewed by Stacey Barkley
Summary: A meandering exploration of the relationships, big and small, that we form across a lifetime
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 163 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408859964

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Problems with People is a meandering exploration of the relationships, big and small, that we form across a lifetime. Ranging from that of parent and child to that between landlord and tenant, Guterson’s observation of the complexities and nuances involved in how we navigate these personal links is extremely sharp and true to life.

This compilation of ten stories spans the spectrum of emotion. We meet characters amid their loneliness, characters frustrated with family members, and those embarking on, or more poignantly reminiscing about their first love. In each of these stories we receive a perfectly formed snapshot of the raw emotion in that moment. This collection is vivid and witty, and certainly does not shy away from tackling the nitty-gritty of the relationships we keep. For this reason it is a very difficult book to put down, and the characters, though nameless, live on even after their story has ended.

One particular highlight of the collection is Krasavit, which sees a son accompany his father, a holocaust survivor, to his German city of birth. Across just eighteen pages Guterson tackles the burden of guilt in the aftermath of this atrocity, as well the ongoing debate about how to remember and accord it a rightful place in history. As the pair tour the city with their German-born tour guide, there are moments of tension and discomfort as the father expresses his anger at the German population at large, unaware of the guide’s own background. Juxtaposed with this is his son’s awareness and thoughtfulness toward the guide as he bids to discreetly apologise on his father’s behalf. As the guide reveals her shame and guilt as a member of the country charged with responsibility, the story takes on even greater depth. This encounter presents a frank look at the aftermath of the holocaust and the ongoing attempts to deal with it from various perspectives. While this is not an easy subject matter to tackle, Guterson manages to draw it out thoughtfully and with skill in the form of this trio. This skill at detail is a strength that runs throughout the collection.

There are other strong contenders as well. Feedback provides a big dose of irony as a social studies teacher charged with delivering lessons in good citizenship and equality is caught up in the gossip surrounding one colleague, and most certainly fails to practice the ethics that she teaches. Self-reflective, however, the character expresses an unshakable guilt over this incident, but falls back into gossiping with other colleagues regardless. In that moment Guterson manages to capture the very human condition of privately feeling one thing, but publicly, fuelled by group norms and expectations, doing another.

There are admittedly weaker stories within the collection. Politics recounts a journey of a husband through Nepal amid a strike, in order to reach his wife in hospital. The end, however, introduces the voice of another character, which breaks from the trend of other stories, and makes for a confusing and rather abrupt end. The story was simply not as gripping as some others. In reality though, life isn’t always gripping, and in an odd way this is an example not of poor story-telling, but of honesty in depicting what are some very mundane experiences in very normal relationships. In the end, this is in essence the beauty of this particular collection.

Strong characterisation and stories that feel real; a great combination for a thoughtful read.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Dear Life by Alice Munro.

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Buy Problems with People by David Guterson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Problems with People by David Guterson at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Problems with People by David Guterson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Problems with People by David Guterson at


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