CategoryShearman Robert

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

***

As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Robert Shearman, Everyone’s Just So So Special (2011)

Robert Shearman returns with the follow-up to his British Fantasy Award-winning collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and once again, he’s put together a superb volume of stories. As before, he’s adept at combining the outlandishly fantastical with the minutiae of everyday life and relationships; but, whereas the main theme of his previous collection was love, here Shearman is broadly concerned with the relationship between individuals and the grand sweep of history.

Separating the main stories is a chart of dates, a “history of mediocrity, and futility, and human error”, to quote its unnamed compiler in one of his asides. The reasons behind this chronicle’s existence are revealed only gradually, as Shearman depicts a man who has been burnt by life, found that even the history he loved as a child now seems hollow, and he and his family have paid a heavy price. For this narrator, history has become nothing but “memories [and] interpretations”; a similar view is expressed by the protagonist of ‘A History of Broken Things’, who intersperses recollections of his past with reflections on his mother’s decline from dementia, whether history is nothing but our memories, and what that means if we forget or are forgotten.

One could take from this the view that individuals are insignificant in the face of history and loss, but that’s not the impression I gain from Everyone’s Just So So Special – at least, not entirely. It seems to me that individuals are central to many of these stories, even in some cases warping reality around themselves. For example, ‘Coming in to Land’ is presented as a flight attendant’s address to her passengers, insisting that they have to believe in Paris for it to be there when they land’; but it’s clear by story’s end that this is all about the attendant and her ex-lover. In ‘This Far, and No Further’, time literally stops from the strength of Polly’s desire to find her missing daughter – but there are a number of perceptual shifts which poignantly reveal her true state of mind.

Several other pieces in the collection also use a strange situation to illuminate character traits. The story ‘Dirt’ is a particularly striking example: Duncan Brown is a university lecturer having an affair with a student from another faculty, who calls herself Natasha and is obsessed with Russia (or her mental image of the place), and even keeps a bag of Russian soil under her pillow. Natasha’s fascination comes across as the rather eccentric fad of a teenager still shaping her own identity; it only takes the innocent action ofDuncansending her a postcard fromRussiato undermine what the country represents to her. But a neat narrative move at the end gives cause to question whether it’s Natasha or Duncan who has the more tenuous hold on reality.

One of the hallmarks of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical for me was the way that Shearman often used the fantastic to facilitate equally satisfying literal and metaphorical readings of his stories. We can see a similar approach in some of the tales in the current volume. ‘Inkblots’, for example, quickly skates over the implausibility of there being such a thing as a “hospital tattooist” to produce a poignant reflection on declaring one’s feelings when they might change. Sam’s father and terminally-ill mother decide it’s time to get tattoos of each other’s names, and would like Sam to have one with both of their names; but he’s not keen on the permanence of a tattoo. Then Sam’s mother doesn’t die after all, and his parents drift apart; Shearman explores the ramifications of such a development in a situation where a tattoo effectively represents a declaration of undying love. In tandem with this, we see Sam’s own unease with the idea of love and commitment, represented by his squeamishness around tattoos.

However, it seems to me that the richest stories in Everyone’s Just So So Special go beyond straightforwardly metaphorical readings, into the deeper heart of fantasy. The protagonist of ‘Times Table’ literally sheds her skin with each new birthday, but the remains hang around as living puppets. The story portrays the protagonist at various stages in her life, from the fourteen-year-old girl taking her teenage insecurities out on the younger self who wasn’t the girl she now wishes she could have been; to the old, old woman surrounded by the ghosts of her past. To an extent, ‘Times Table’ is about who we are as people, and the changing nature of self; but the sheer range that it encompasses makes the story greater than the sum of its parts.

In ‘Restoration’, a figure known only as “the Curator” has conquered the universe, and each year of history is now a mural in his vast gallery. Andy gets a job at the gallery, and is particularly taken with both 1574 and his boss, Miriam – that’s the name she takes, anyway; she’s forgotten her own. And Miriam is not the forgetful one, as Andy too sometimes finds her slipping from his memory; but a new directive from the Curator forces the two of them to take drastic action. ‘Restoration’ is a slice of beautiful strangeness that works by remaining focused on the characters at its heart; even when the world we know has been utterly swept away, we can recognise the people.

So who actually is special, in the face of all that was, is, or might be? Perhaps the story ‘Acronyms’ offers a clue in its portraits of interlocking (though separate) lives, beginning with a café-owner who makes the finest BLT sandwich and heading towards an outlandish tale of spying. Everyone is special in their own stories, but those stories may be only tangential to each other. Shearman’s collection, however, certainly is special.

(This review also appears in issue 269 of Vector.)

A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

***

And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

***

So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

Robert Shearman, ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ (2011)

Alan and Alice thought they knew their neighbours well enough, but discovered embarrassingly otherwise when they learned that Eric had been dead for months, and Barbara was moving out because she couldn’t cope with her feelings of loneliness. New neighbours duly moved in and, though the couple never saw them, they did hear the loud music coming from next door – and that was just the beginning. This unsettling piece features the matter-of-fact treatment of strangeness that Shearman does so well; Alan’s work life and relationship with Alice fray around the edges as the bizarre events proceed. The result is a story that really get’s under one’s skin.

Rating: ****

Link
Robert Shearman’s website

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (2009)

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.

Elsewhere
Robert Shearman’s website
Video of Shearman reading ‘One Last Love Song’
Some other reviews of the book: Paul Raven for Strange Horizons; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch.

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