Collection Review: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master

Aimee Bender is one of my favorite writers, so when I heard that she was coming out with another short story collection, The Color Master, I was psyched. What I didn’t realize was that several of the stories in The Color Master are based on fairy tales. Surprise, surprise: those fairy tale stories are some of my favorites in the collection. I like Bender best when she takes an element from outside this world and transplants it into our world; her non-fantastical stories are still, in their way, surreal, filled with strange, unsettling voices. But these non-fantastical stories don’t speak to me on the same level as stories such as “End of the Line” and “The Healer,” two of Bender’s earlier stories which I heartily recommend.

There are a few of these gems in The Color Master. The title story is a prequel to the well-known fairy tale “Donkeyskin.” Bender’s story, however, doesn’t follow the princess and her father but a group of people who design clothing with colors to match natural elements. The main character, an apprentice colorist, is nervous when the sick master colorist informs her that she is dying and that she has chosen the apprentice as her replacement. The coloring process involves a near-mystical, intuitive selection of elements which combine to make the clothes mimic, for example, the moon, the sun, or the stars. The colorists utilize objects such as a strand of white hair, or shards of opal. The color master is enraged by the story of the king in love with his daughter, and requests that the apprentice put her anger into the dress. But the apprentice doesn’t know how, and she doesn’t feel much of anything, least of all anger. It’s a beautiful story about finding your own way, your own passion, in the world, and Bender tells it beautifully. A subtler theme of the ways women are often wronged in the fairy tale world also flows throughout the story.

In “The Devourings,” a woman with an ogre for a husband finds herself distraught and unable to stay with him when he accidentally devours all of their children. After a period of grief, she finally leaves him. She wanders the woods, choosing not to leave the land of the ogres. She carries with her a cake that replenishes itself once it’s halfway gone and a cloak that mimics sunlight, to help her hide on her journeys. “The Devourings” is about the difficulties of marriage, about loving someone despite their, sometimes egregious, faults. It’s also, in a gesture of brilliant humor, about the life cycle of a cake that can never be completely eaten.

In “A State of Variance,” Bender tells a more modern fairy tale; a woman stops sleeping but one hour a night. It’s not intentional; she feels just as rested after the one hour as she used to after eight. But her dreams begin to drift over into her waking life, so that she starts to live this surreal existence, unsure which reality is real to others, such as her son with a completely symmetrical and therefore untrustworthy face, and which are real only to her. A story of growing older, and family, “A State of Variance” is another example of Bender’s exquisite sense of humor.

“Americaa” tells the story of a young woman named Lisa who, with her family, one day begins to find objects in their house that have just appeared there; the story isn’t about, as you might suspect, who has been putting them there, but rather is a coming-of-age story. Bender is at her funniest in this story, and several others in the third section of the The Color Master — the collection is divided into three parts — which seems to contain the stories with the most comedy, though no less heart.

The final highlight of the collection for me, and the only one that appears outside of the third section, is the haunting “Tiger Mending.” A woman and her sister travel to Asia; the sister, a seamstress, has been recruited for a secret job and asked that her sister be allowed to travel with her. When they arrive in Asia, the nature of the job is revealed; the seamstress will be helping to sew tigers’ skin back together. She wants to know why the tigers’ skins are coming off, and so she asks her sister to help her uncover the mystery. The image of the tigers emerging from the jungle to be mended by women with gentle hands was borrowed from Amy Cutler’s painting of the same name, which for me gives even more power to the story. This one, too, is subtle, but like all of Bender’s work, told from a character whose distinctive voice makes me believe that I know her from my own life. In this way, Bender’s stories make me believe that sometimes the mystical really does lurk in our own world, if we only know where and when to look.

The Color Master is available for purchase through Amazon.

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