Here in this one skinny volume is all that heat and wit and intuitive naturalness, all those subtle and instinctive tricks you just can't teach. I don't think I can remember where I last encountered a debut collection that so justified its existence, that buzzed with so much credibility and attitude ... There's not a slack phrase or a boring paragraph in this collection. Everything, you feel, is tight and meant. Description and similes - so often abused by first-time writers - are employed with urgency, grace and humour. Best of all, Packer's happy to leave things untidy.
...the obstacles to achieving identity are more complicated than the obvious ones, such as our grievous racial history. Characters are squeezed between competing assumptions and proscriptions, both societal and familial. Tensions are internalized or they explode into violence or both. Packer's debut collection reminds us that no stylistic tour de force -- or authorial gamesmanship, or flights of language -- can ground a story like a well-realized character ... Packer does her best writing about characters who are coming of age in one way or another, like Doris, the teenager in 'Doris Is Coming' ... Young writers, naturally enough, write about young characters. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is not really limited by this. Instead, there is a sense of a talented writer testing and pushing at those limits, ringing as many changes as possible within her fictional world. It is a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come.
There is an apparent ease of composition and confidence of direction. There is enough texture of detail, colour, cruelty and sensibility to give the writing that elusive feeling of reality. But the winning component is Packer's authorial voice: uncompromising, funny, angry without the obsession, political without tedium, intensely human, peppered with astonishing moments of poetry ... This is a book full of journeys and escape, of characters displaced or alone, who often find that their destinations pose even more profound threats to their survival ... While Packer does seem over-preoccupied with black and white, she allows her lens to take in the grey areas between. In her darting through history and the present, she poses that essential question: how much has really changed? ... Serious and contentious, she never loses hold of the craft and delight of storytelling.
The central characters themselves are fully alive, and each story shows that race is only one element in their sense of themselves as people apart ... Packer can be very funny, making us see and laugh at the gulf between our expectations, prejudices or rhetoric, and reality ... At her best, Packer combines her political vision with an impressive lightness of touch ... She shows her range not by depicting people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as Zadie Smith does, but by exploring the complexity of the black experience ... Packer’s stories express a deep mistrust of communal action. Her central characters are never team players ... The most difficult problem raised by the collection is the tension between Packer’s intense individualism and her equally intense commitment to black civil rights ... The deliberate solitude of Packer’s central characters can sometimes make them seem merely brattish. Their world excludes love, friendship, even affection; their fragile sense of self can be maintained only by keeping other people out.
Racism serves a critical function in all of Packer's stories, but at her best, she spies it from a distance that casts a watchful eye on the sad self-imposition underlying its fated reality ... Not much of a stylist, Packer pitches her stories against a uniformly stoic backdrop in which knife fights and molestation take on the same tenor as uneventful errand runs. Too much of Elsewhere feels belabored and stripped of personality, but the author's pronounced mistrust of resolution tempers her overbearing tendencies.
Packer’s frustrated characters hover on the edges of groups, unsure whether they’re fully in or fully out. Social and societal lines shift, whirl, and sometimes wrap around characters’ legs ... Packer addresses the uncomfortable realities that sometimes come up in contemporary multicultural society, bringing them organically into character development and using them to support the tension within the stories ... Packer’s prose is clear and clean amid her themes of ambiguity. Most striking are her piquant descriptions of the dozens of minor characters she creates ... This set of stories is a pleasure to dive into for the wit, the writing, the characters, and the novel plots, but most of all for the human truth that in the search for self-knowledge, we find we each defy category.
In Packer's stories, the protagonists, primarily young African-American women on the verge of some formative encounter, discover that they are outcasts, and that structuring their identity is more complicated than merely understanding the stereotypical difficulties associated with being black and female. They often pretend in order to get by or to get anywhere, then realize they're not where they wanted to be. Packer's beautifully constructed narratives and realistic dialogue mark this collection as the debut of an assured and original voice.
Race is less subject than context in these eight finely crafted tales, all consistently challenging readers’ basic assumptions ... These are not cheerful tales ... Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop.
The clear-voiced humanity of Packer's characters, mostly black teenage girls, resonates unforgettably through the eight stories of this accomplished debut collection ... These stories never end neatly or easily. Packer knows how to keep the tone provocative and tense at the close of each tale, doing justice to the complexity and dignity of the characters and their difficult choices.