A remarkably diverse, thought-provoking, often witty, and beautifully-written short stories.
That was a relief, because I loved Faber's "The Crimson Petal and the White" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/249591596), but was shocked by how much I disliked the related short stories, "The Apple" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/258603443).
Many of these stories have a wry humour and a dream-like sense of disorientation, at least initially, but there is no unifying theme (which is not a criticism).
SOME RAIN MUST FALL
The title story seems mundane at first, but gradually reveals unexpected poignancy and depth. A specialist teacher is parachuted (not literally!) into a primary class after the previous teacher's sudden departure.
Allegory, post-apocalyptic world, dream...? A single mother raises her young daughter in a city/world where fish of all sizes prowl the air and the Church of Armageddon rules and recruits by intimidation.
IN CASE OF VERTIGO
Every paragraph starts, in caps, "SISTER JENNIFER" and observes her for a few hours at a camping/beauty spot.
This opens memorably, "God played alone: there were no other children where he lived." The writing and images are beautiful, but give away the idea somewhat, hence
* "His eyes would goggle at the strange new things he found there [in the abandoned universe]... bottled gases which plumed out in the shape of a star when smashed free, huge fluffs of sliver fibre spilling out of the bins like foam... enigmatically specific crystal implements... and... broken engines of paradox."
* "He never lost his sense of the little planet's beauty and charm. A miraculous egg of confluences, it was innocent and clever, making mountains out of molten sludge, rainforests out of water and dirt, fresh water out of salt. It was alchemy achieved by instinct, the instinct of a world which was not aware of itself, but which had none the less found a use even for the spent breaths of plants."
* "Glaciers edging away from the poles like bubbles of fat around the white of a frying egg."
MISS FATT AND MISS THINNE
The only thing I dislike about this is the title. It concerns two single school-friends who share a home and are "so much alike that they were almost a single organism, growing in two pale branches from an invisible root in the heart of the house". They think they are very different, despite "the drab private language developed by people who share too many minutes of the day".
It starts with humour, but turns darker. Well, sadder, with a touch of magical-realism.
HALF A MILLION POUNDS AND A MIRACLE
The only weak story in the collection. It's about a church renovation, and I found it dull despite (or because of?) a love story.
THE RED CEMENT TRUCK
The beauty of a cement truck, "so massive that only a section of it could be viewed, as if it were an absurdly enlarged detail from a painting, or a huge close-up filling a cinema screen. The enormous metal barrel was painted deep read, textured by corrosion, aged and weirdly organic. It revolved slowly, glistening with raindrops."
Of course, it's not really about a cement truck but opens with a young woman hearing the sounds of "a strange man going through her things|" upstairs, and being grateful that she wasn't raped.
SOMEWHERE WARM AND COMFORTABLE
A touching tale of siblings, and the difference between naivety and knowingness, demonstrated by their different ages. Younger helps older sister when she gets into trouble, without ever realising the situation.
If I just describe this, it will sound like the sort of exercise that might be given in a creative writing class, and perhaps it is. However, it is a superb piece of imaginative yet visceral writing.
Anyway, it imagines Nina's dominant hand has a degree of sentience, and describes life from its point of view:
* "Every morning these same first impressions: the minutely corrugated plastic of the alarm clock's button, the damp acquiescence of Nina's closed eyes and the textured thrill of sleep crystals skidding alone the forefinger."
* "the grasping of the water glass, conveying it through space at a gently increasing tilt towards Nina's lips, a minor miracle of articulation beyond the scope of Nina's poor arithmetic to express."
* "When there was something that needed doing, however, they [both hands] could toil in perfect complement, like estranged twin sisters reunited in the workplace, who never spoke but remembered the intimacy of the womb."
* "seconds going by, bright flashes of time, winking in rhythm with eternity, but they never amounted to minutes. Each was joined to the last and the next, or disappeared suddenly, according to its wish. Within these seconds, folded inside them like hors d'oeuvres, were sensations."
THE CRUST OF HELL
A shrewd satire of white Americans living in Africa, but not really understanding the locals. The teenage daughter is a little more sassy, and as infuriated by her parents as any self-respecting teenager. For instance, she describes her father's job thus, "'he watches clouds move, waits for snow to melt, stuff like that.' It was a delicious answer... both because it was a swipe at her father's own tolerance for monotony, and because she could nevertheless impress her friends with the unusualness of his job."
THE GOSSIP CELL
Another humorous one, this time about a mad genius inventor, though the science is explained well enough to sound vaguely plausible.
A deprived child of 13 has an ingenious plan to save herself. Cooped up at home, uneducated, carer for her grandmother, and pregnant by her father, she plans escape, rather than a DIY abortion.
About Polish immigrants, more than a decade before it became a political issue. This is not the most exciting or entertaining story in the book, but is probably the most meaty.
It is set in a Polish restaurant, where the owner's niece has recently come from Poland, to work. It seems to be about immigration, emigration, family and so on, but is increasingly political, focusing on capitalism versus communism, the underclass, and attitudes to sexuality and casual sex.
Capitalism "was when people had less interest in what was available than in what might soon be available - when they hankered only after the things which would make what they already possessed obsolete and undesirable."
TUNNEL OF LOVE
An unemployed advertising executive ends up working as a spruiker (new word for me) at a peep show/sex shop. It's not a sordid story - you become inured to stimulation if you're constantly surrounded by it, apparently. It explores relationships and attitudes to them, as well as modes of selling and communication, with a dash of feminism. "I couldn't tell if I was being corrupted or redeemed: old prejudices were melting away, yet... was letting go of permissive values I'd once claimed to hold but which had never really been tested." It's all about the eyes: always look people in the eyes.
Is modern art pointless and meaningless? A wealthy fan of more traditional art tricks five American artists to being abandoned in the Scottish highlands, "the world of real Art, and the environment that inspires it". Will it change their opinions and practices?
* "Books odd enough to promise children a frisson of the bizarre, informative enough to fill their heads with the crunchy cereal of fact, irrelevant enough to be unthreatening."
* "Walking with a peculiar shambling gait and a posture which suggested congenital inferiority."
* "She could make delicious refrigerator casseroles that didn't taste as if their ingredients had come from cans."
* "She had spooned intimacy into his mouth like luxury ice cream, and he had murmured for more."
* "The stumbling ballet of nightclub courtship."
* A woman visiting a dodgy hostel, "wasn't anxious about her safety: the smell of impotence was so pungent here that it cut right through the miasma of alcohol, smoke and unwaashed T-shirts".
* That hostel had "a toiletless toilet of a room... They were the guinea pigs of endless unemployment, subsisting half-insane in their vertiginous pen."
* "Her man was sort of touching her now, the alcohol having calibrated him to that magic notch just shot of comatose sleep where he had the confidence to cup his palms over her breasts."
* "The caress... seemed to come from far away, remote control commands which lost strength and clarity as they travelled through a million miles of alcoholic space."