Archives for category: Book Review

It may surprise you to learn that some people have never seen a single episode of The League of Gentlemen. But it’s true. I’m one. Which puts me in the happy position of being able to review Jeremy Dyson’s first book of short stories with the cool detachment it deserves (he’s a co-writer on the series, for those who are as uninitiated as I am).

Never Trust A Rabbit comprises twelve short stories, three of which have been published previously in other places; seven and a half were written specially for this collection. Each story is preceded by a wonderful unsettling, inky black and white illustration by James Hood. We get an introduction from the author, and, opposite the colophon page, a Hungarian proverb: Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy but they eat your crops. It’s the perfect taster for the stories to come. And, of course, Jeremy Dyson made it up. There is no such Hungarian proverb.

All twelve stories end unexpectedly. After the first couple, We Who Walk Through Walls and A Slate Roof In The Rain, you begin to expect the unexpected. Some stories finish more surprisingly than others. When the twist works it’s brilliant, but when it doesn’t it’s extremely frustrating because the stories are otherwise so well written. City Deep is the oldest here – dating back to 1989/1990. It’s about a tube-train-phobic man who is forced to go underground with catastrophic (but kind of predictable) results. And We Who Walk Through Walls (about the staging of an illusion that involves a world famous magician walking through a wall) ends unpredictably, but at the expense of its own narrative logic, making the ending read as if it were flown in from another story.

But when it works, ah when it works…

At the heart of the collection are two stories. The first is The Engine of Desire. It’s disgusting, improbable, nasty, and hilarious. Where some of the other stories are tightly focused miniatures (The Maze, All In The Telling), this is a story told in the literary equivalent of widescreen CinemaScope. It has a “hero” called Jack Sleighmaker (fer Chrissakes)!

Sleighmaker is an international adventurer-cum-mercenary who will do virtually anything for money. He is commissioned by Prince Bandar bin Turki (of some unspecified country) to find and acquire an incredibly rare automaton invented by an erotomaniac artist called Thomas Narcejac. The piece in question is a life-like replica of a girl called Aveline that can apparently perform unbelievably exquisite sexual acts. The quest to find the piece takes Sleighmaker from Egypt to Rippon in North Yorkshire and eventually on to a little piece of Kent in the middle of Zambia. The visceral, gory, insane, spectacular denouement reminded me of one of the Chapman Brothers’ sicker dioramas. And made me laugh out loud.

The second is the most recent story in the collection, A Last Look At The Sea. It’s a taut, unshowy dissection of a couple’s relationship, with a strange maritime effect as a backdrop. George and Tessa, who have been seeing each other for a year, visit Long Cross in Cornwall, just prior to Tessa going to live in America for a year. At Tessa’s insistence they go for a cliff walk that leads them to a fog-shrouded beach where the tide goes out and does not come back. There is a sumptuous bleakness to the story, rounded out by a deft ending that manages to be positive without being sickly or sentimental.

The remaining eight stories stand at points along the line that connects The Engine of Desire to A Last Look At The Sea.  At the heart of each lies a believable relationship – even if it’s between a man and a cash machine (The Cashpoint Oracle) – and this lends the stories, no matter how absurd, their emotional power.  It’s a fine balance between the deliciously sinister and the mundane and human that makes these stories so satisfying. Tasty!

Review originally published by The Roundtable Review (May/ June 2007)

This got packed away in the very bottom of a box when we moved four years ago. I had never read it; in fact had taken against it. No matter how many people told me it was a work of unparalleled genius I wouldn’t budge. How dare this upstart dazzle my friends, I thought. I taught myself to spit the words Donald and Barthelme.

Anyway, we moved. A new environment, somewhere bigger where we could stretch out and breathe. One whole year later, we decided to open up the boxes and rediscover some of our old books. There it was. Oh-ho, I said, the over-rated Barthelme and his forty stories. My copy’s a floppy American penguin Handbook edition, printed on very thin paper. I weighed it in my hand. This feels nice, I thought, wonder what it reads like.

It didn’t feel like a dipper, so I started reading from the beginning. Chablis, the first story was a domestic miniature told from the point of view of a man struggling to keep his wife happy – I could feel myself thawing. Can this be? The second, On The Deck, was abstract and allegorical seeming, but again ended with a surprisingly emotional pay-off. By the time I’d read The Genius, I was hooked. And every story was different in style from the one that preceded it. My favourite opening line is this one from The New Owner: “When he came to look at the building, with a real-estate agent man hissing and oozing beside him, we lowered the blinds, muted or extinguished lights, threw newspapers and dirty clothes on the floor in piles, burned rubber bands in ashtrays, and played Buxtehude on the hi-fi – shaking organ chords whose vibrations made the plaster falling from the ceiling fall faster,” but you might prefer: “Some of us have been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him,” from Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby.

Over the last four years I have fallen in love with these forty stories. Particularly the one about Paul Klee (painter and teacher at the Bauhaus), losing an aircraft that he is supposed to be transporting during World War II, because he is too busy drawing to notice it being stolen. And the one about Bluebeard…