Mark Haddon has already left his mark on the world with his well known novel and play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I haven’t read that book but I will now, because this new collection is impressive. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for a fair and honest review. At times like this, when I get to review stellar writing, it’s a great pleasure to do so.
Note the title first, because it serves to set the tone for all of the stories here. It’s dark out there. On the one hand, a collection filled with cataclysmic tragedies and crimes can make our own troubles look small; yet the reader that tends toward serious clinical depression might be better served to read something lighter. I could imagine how immersing oneself in these stories, which seem quite immediate because they’re so well done, might make a depressive start dwelling on other things, like whether to reach for the rat poison or the razor blades. So if that’s you, get a different book, seriously.
For the rest of us, this is amazing fiction. The title story is the best:
The noise, when it comes, is like the noise of a redwood being felled, wood and metal bending and splitting under pressure. Everyone looks at their feet, feeling the hum and judder of the struts. The noise stops and there is a moment of silence, as if the sea itself were holding its breath. Then with a peal of biblical thunder…a woman and three children standing at the rail drop instantly. Six more people are poured, scrabbling, down the half-crater of shattered wood into the sea.
The story is written so intentionally that not a word is wasted. The result is a tale that is like having a pile of snapshots fall out of your wallet. There it all is in one cruel moment after another, laid bare for all to see. And you have to see it, because once you start, you cannot possibly look away.
Haddon’s capacity to develop a character within a short space is part of his magic, as is his brilliance with setting. The Gun has won an award already, and reminds me somewhat of Peter Straub’s spellbinding facility in combining children with horrible circumstances; the distinction between the protagonist and the new friend that his mother has warned is a bad influence point to class difference and the sometimes-terrible pragmatism that poverty creates. And in two other stories, Bunny and Breathe, we see a crackling combination of genuine good intentions in a protagonist grappling with great pressure and suppressed rage.
None of it is pretty, but it’s too good not to read!
Another personal favorite is The Woodpecker and the Wolf, which veers into science fiction, starting off gently with the notion of space travel that involves sitting on a sofa, playing Scrabble a lot, and not doing much but observe, but then there are other developments and once again, things grow darker.
There have been times when I have had to speculate about whether it would be worth the purchase price of a book to read one really good short story that’s in the collection, or two really good stories. That’s not an issue here. While I confess that I didn’t finish The Island because it was so horribly dark—and one could perhaps argue that Haddon just did his job a little too well for me there—everything else here is simply admirable.
This outstanding collection is available to the public May 10, 2016, and it’s highly recommended.