It has been around one -and-a-quarter years since I first heard of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, when it won the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize. I didn’t really know who Rob Shearman was (I’ve learned since that, amongst many other things, he wrote the episode of Doctor Who that introduced the Daleks to the revived series); but seeing him speak at the BSFA AGM later in 2010 only increased my interest in reading his work. Now I’ve finally done so, and more fool me for taking this long.
I’ve discovered that Shearman is a master of a kind of fantasy story I love, the sort that works equally well on the metaphorical and literal levels. The story ‘Luxembourg’ is a fine example: in it, the titular country disappears, leaving behind nothing but a water-filled hole; Juliet’s husband Colin was on a business trip there, and now she has to deal with his absence. It’s the little, mundane things that she notices:
She didn’t know how much food she should buy on the shopping run, and the DVD wasn’t nearly so much fun without Colin talking through the whole thing – she looked at the house, all newly cleaned, and wondered why she’d bothered. (p. 108)
As time goes on, Juliet falls for Colin’s brother Dave – but then Luxembourg reappears, and Colin with it. The events around Luxembourg become a very effective metaphor for exploring how one might react when a lover leaves a relationship.
But the story is also aesthetically satisfying when taken entirely at face value. What’s most striking from that viewpoint is how the characters treat the disappearance of Luxembourg as nothing too remarkable, as though such extraordinary events happen all the time; it’s reported on the British news as a quirky ‘and finally…’ story, and Juliet puts it out of her mind when she first hears about it (‘She supposed there was nothing to worry about. She supposed if there was something she ought to be doing, someone would soon tell her to do it,’ p. 106).
Time and again, the stories in Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical are like this: mundane, middle-class British settings; unremarkable characters with unremarkable names (if names are given at all) focusing on the everyday aspects of living and loving, yet taking the most remarkable occurrences in their stride. By giving his characters similar reactions to the fantastic and the domestic, Shearman is effectively granting the two equal dramatic weight, which may be why his tales balance so well.
But the characters’ inability (or refusal) to view the fantastic as extraordinary could also be read as not dealing with the reality of their situations, and that carries a note of horror along with the humour of incongruity. Take, for example, the story ‘Your Long, Loving Arms’, in which unemployed Steve gets a job working as a tree. It’s funny and absurd, yes – but then we watch Steve’s relationship disintegrate because he’s so wrapped up in his work; and we see how he gets treated by people when on duty – and there’s the horror of seeing these characters trapped in a situation which could be made better with only a simple (to us) shift of perception.
Though it’s possible to see a consistent approach running through many of the stories in this collection, there’s also considerable variety across the book as a whole; as the title suggests, explorations of love predominate. In ‘14.2’, for example, love is something that can be quantified precisely, which leads people to have a rather clinical view of relationships. In ‘One Last Love Song’, love is an inscrutable quality that the protagonist encapsulates perfectly in a song he writes as a child (which becomes one of the Government’s official thousand registered love songs), a feat he struggles to repeat for the rest of his life. And in ‘This Creeping Thing’, love is… well:
For Susan, love was just something which crept up on her. There was no such thing as falling in love, falling simply wasn’t part of the process; the most Susan could manage would be an odd stumble every now and then… (p. 63)
The opening passage of that story is longer than I can reasonably quote here, but I think it’s a wonderful piece of prose and observation. Taken as a whole, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical is similarly insightful – not to mention an excellent set of stories.