I bought this book on the spur of the moment from Salt after reading a review, then, as is frequently the case, it sat in the pile for the next year. This is not the book to read as you wander through the creative maze that is NaNoWriMo, since it is writing that I long to be capable of and fall so far short of. Sometimes I find this encouraging and at others disheartening.
It is a story collection that spans such a range of ideas and characters. Although they are all so different I did sense a bit of a theme, mainly sadness, and a need to hide it or compensate for it in some way. It is not just good writing that makes a good story, it is good observation and understanding, the feeling that it says a little something about the human condition. In other reading I came across this idea, from Schopenhauer, and it seems most apposite: "Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experience more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we clearly recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it." (From The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton). Dunk disagreed; he has been reading 'Where the Heart Beats', about John Cage and Zen, and he had apparently been trying to move away from the notion that art should reflect the human experience but should somehow be a thing in itself. I'm not sure I'll get to the bottom of this as Zen, by it's very nature, seems to require answering all questions with another question (or maybe that's just Dunk in avoidance mode).
I however like stories to give a little insight. What might you chat about while having colonic irrigation, for example? I liked Tom, a small boy who makes up a story about going to the circus, to avoid having to tell his teacher that his nan died at the weekend:
"When Tom got home from school, there was Mrs Pym Next Door in his house. She smelled of Vim. Dad was busy but he'd be back later.
Then he went to go upstairs, and got halfway up, trailing his hand on the wallpaper, when he remembered. The room seemed echoey without his small Nan in it, like the fireplace when the fire's gone out. There was no point in looking anywhere." (There Were Tigers. P.111)
and the girl, who's sister has a magical form of synaesthesia, that leaves her feeling as if she is not special enough:
"Water, she said, was dark blue knives, sharp as flint, the sound; the feel of it slippery elongated esses. The scrape of knife on toast was green gloss of holly leaves, avalanches on distant mountains, and the taste of butter round and grey like polished pebbles.
On the beach I stared at pebbles. Held them in my hands, brought them to my lips. Ran my tongue over them quietly. To me, they were just pebbles, and I would be told to put them down." (Tasting Pebbles. p.135)
Some have a surreal quality, like 'Simon's Skin', about trying on another person's body; others have a more gothic feel, like 'The Lynch-Warmer', a tale of a tiny church and a family of women who care for the dead. Strangely I quite liked 'Dodie's Gift' about a lonely middle aged woman getting to know a strange holiday maker and then being raped:
"She tries to make something out of yesterday's incident that isn't hopeless. She won't allow herself to name the act that happened here, and will wonder, if someone takes something you were going to give them anyway, is that stealing? She will think. In time her thoughts will become memories, and she will recall a little kindness where in fact there was little, and some meaning where there was none at all." (p.69)
But the most poignant is 'I Can Squash The King Tommo', about a man who takes care of 'Batty Annie', a crazy old woman who is the mother of his childhood friend. He has spent his life trying to console her for the death of her son, feeling responsible in the way children do, trying to make amends:
"By the time Tommo gets to the tunnel, Annie will be inside, her slippers soft on the moss and stones. He'll breathe shallow at the stink of piss. He will see nothing at all as the light is gone, taken by the wind. He will feel it, cold on his face, as he hunches his shoulders, coughs.
Annie? come away now...
Tommo will hear her breathing, sharp, each intake like a sob. He'll hear the scritching of her net against the bricks, a scuttle of tiny claws, the damp velvet dark pressing on his ears. And the sound. The hooooing of the wind, magnified now. And if Tommo puts his hand on the wall, presses his fingers into the grease and soot, he can feel the wall trembling, still. As if the coal train is coming. " (p15)
Just one a night, to give time to think about each, it has lasted me through much of November. Wonderful stuff.