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Book Review: A Belgian Assortment: Brussels Short Stories

A Belgian Assortment: Brussels Short Stories. T.D. Arkenberg. Outskirts Press, Fall 2018. Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 219 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

“Assuming a carnival atmosphere, the afternoon market at Chatelain was a feast for the eyes, ears, nose, and palate.”

In “Chatelain Market,” Arkenberg’s opening story, Marian visits the market each evening after work looking for romance. Her latest crush is a man who sells Moroccan savories; she’s nicknamed him “the Moroccan.” She comes to the market each day hoping to work up the courage to flirt with him but watches as other women find the courage instead. When a stranger stumbles into the situation, he reveals new depths to a place Marian believes she knows so well.

Reading Arkenberg’s outstanding collection is like a tour through a Chatelain market, or selecting from an assortment of delectable Belgian chocolates: it’s a feast, one that in some ways inverts a classic model.Short story collections centered in one town or city have a long tradition. Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, for exampleand Joyce’s Dubliners, are probably the most famous. Joyce was a notorious expat, but his collection described his home. Arkenberg’s collection features stories of expats in a city that is not home, although, as the introduction states, he did live in Brussels at one time. This unique perspective allows for moments of vulnerability and self-discovery. 

One of the wonderful aspects of Arkenberg’s stories is the diversity of perspectives. In “Lockdown,” Lebanese brothers struggle to find acceptance in Brussels, and one brother struggles to accept his own sexuality. Arkenberg tells another uniquely touching tale in “In Bruges...Again,” in which a son hosts his mother in Brussels and finds himself taking her to Bruges—a place he normally loathes going with guests—to hide his lifestyle from her, only to realize she’s known all along. The story “Recycled Promises” is about an American expat who discovers that after laying roots in Brussels, her husband has arranged to have them return stateside, and in realizing this, she decides to strike out and make a new life for herself. Arkenberg renders each of these characters and their worlds with empathy and skill, creating unique and entertaining tales about sympathetic characters you can’t help rooting for. 

The book is a true assortment, diverse not only in its subject matter, but also the types of stories. Some stories end light-heartedly, and most leave the reader hopeful. There’s humor, heartbreak, and genuine self-discovery in this collection. Arkenberg’s love of Brussels is apparent, and his sympathetic telling of each story shows a writer with a genuine interest in people. These aren’t flashy, overbearing stories, yet each one ends with some soul-sucking gut punch. They’re a pleasure to read, and with each successive story, I found myself getting more immersed in Brussels. 

Recommended for people who love well-written and compelling short fiction. A Belgian Assortment by T.D. Arkenberg is a skillfully written collection by an author with command of his craft. One word of warning, however: be prepared to finish the book and have a burning desire to renew your passport. Arkenberg’s Brussels is a city I could not bear to leave. 


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