An intelligent writer chooses her form wisely, then leverages it to yield meanings that would be impossible if she relied solely on words. Form is a container, like a bucket or a vase. Even before we inspect the contents, the container gives us clues, or at least raises expectations. We don't expect our buckets to hold wine, nor our vases to hold battery acid. If a container holds unexpected things –- a bucket, say, filled with roses –- then that too yields meanings. And in the hands of an intelligent writer, those fresh meanings enhance the reading experience.
In form, The Good Works of Ayela Linde by Charlotte Forbes, is a collection of 16 short stories arranged chronologically. Each is told from the point of view of someone connected to the main character, Ayela Linde. Some of the voices are close to Ayela, like Concha the maid, who has served the Lindes all her adult life and continues to serve even on the night of her death. Others are removed but nevertheless fall within the orbit of Ayela's influence, like Pepillo, the gas station attendant who sells her a hand–carved swan and claims, as a consequence, that she has ruined his life.
Before we dip into the particulars of this book, already its form and arrangement alert us to some of the concerns that Forbes will explore. The book is about someone – Ayela Linde. She is enigmatic, unpredictable, even exotic. How are we to understand her? How are we to circumscribe her within a precise definition? Tacitly, these are the questions all the book's storytellers ask. The task, of course, is impossible. Forbes has created a fully realized character, and what makes her fully realized — her complexity and her depth — are the very things which make definition impossible. In a mysterious process that defies explanation, Ayela Linde presents a fullness of character which is more than the sum of the words which give her life. How is such a thing possible?
We have the beginnings of an answer in the way each of the stories approaches its subject. The various narrators tell of their relationship to her. We have whatever facts they care to note. We have their observations and their impressions. But all of it is refracted through the lens of their unique experiences. Really, the narrators tell stories of themselves, and Ayela is the occasion of their telling. For example, we have Doctor Teller (a telling name?), who has known the Lindes since the early days of their marriage and, now that Frederick has died, is concerned about Ayela's emotional health.