Book Review: Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

Comprised of three short stories and a novella, Tell Me a Riddle delicately explores the impact a harsh and frequently uncaring society has upon the family unit. Each of the stories shows the different experiences and points of view of various family members – from a mother’s heartbreaking tale of poverty and single parenthood in 1950s America, to a grandmother who wants nothing more than peace and dignity in her old age but is denied both by her husband and adult children. Originally published in the 1950s, the book remains a classic for its use of unconventional choices of narrator (the mother of the troubled teenager rather than the teenager herself; the “difficult” old woman rather than her exasperated and condescending children), and also for the sheer heartrending beauty of Olsen’s prose. Olsen has a keen eye for observing both the family and society, and a haunting, lyrical prose style. Highly recommended.

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