Let’s talk about what Sarah Shun-lien Bynum does well in “The Erlking” before we approach the story as a whole. This is a story that is dependent on the title, Erlking, an allusion to a malevolent character from European folklore (Scandinavian/German). The Erlking is seductive and deadly, and may be obviously represented to the girl, Ruthie, in the story as a man just out of sight that seems somehow magical and alluring. Less obviously, the Erlking is represented in Ruthie’s mother, Kate, being obsessed about her daughter being in the perfect school.
On one level, the story has some interesting elements. Kate is so focused on schools and progress that she fails to really interact with her daughter. What is the trade off between being a loving parent and one that provides access to the best schools, etc? Kate doesn’t really seem to trust herself, and instead relies on advice from therapists and social pressures.
For the most part this story is hard to read. The audience seems to be women in their early to mid thirties who are first time mothers, and of a social class where they have the time and money to interview for weeks at a time with their children so they are accepted into preschool. To say there is a disconnect would be an understatement. Couple that with the voices of Kate and Ruthie, and the story becomes unbearable as neither of the two are especially interesting characters or likable. Coming in at just under 4,500 words, the Erlking feels much longer as it bores Kate’s repetitious fixation regarding preschools into the reader’s head.