Robert Shearman’s a man with impressive credentials and a sense of humour to match; an award-winning writer for stage, screen and radio, his first book of short stories, Tiny Deaths, was nominated for numerous prizes and won Best Collection at the 2008 World Fantasy Awards. I first encountered Rob at a live literature event in Preston, where he held the room in thrall with a tale about a woman who kept giving birth to items of antique furniture. Sound strange? Absolutely. When he was introduced to me later as the man who brought the Daleks back to Doctor Who, he was automatically granted a gold star in my own personal Storytelling Walk of Fame – and so I’ve been dying to get my hands on his latest collection of shorts, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. I wasn’t disappointed.
Shearman’s got the kind of knack for storytelling that makes other writers groan in despairing jealousy – he makes it all look so easy. His stories flow with such grace, familiarity and simplicity, that it’s easy to pause and imagine his characters there beside you, clutching a cup of tea, slightly hectored, put-upon, dazed and bewildered by the peculiar situations their creator has landed them in. Not one of his tales seems contrived or forced, no matter how surreal – and this is a collection that tells us about human hearts stored in Tupperware containers for safe-keeping; a world where Luxembourg can vanish off the face of the Earth, and rabbits can grow wings. And like the front cover tells us, it’s a set of love-songs – confused, lost, unwanted, unrequited, psychotic, creeping and honest-to-goodness tender love. It’s funny and sad and poignant, and Shearman does it all with such a light touch that it’s difficult to remember, at times, that’s it fiction you’re reading.
So what have we got here? A random sampling: in ‘Love Among the Lobelias’, Satan becomes a best-selling romantic novelist. ‘Roadkill‘ tells the story of a bereaved mother who has a fling with a god-awfully annoying colleague – the sex scenes in this story alone are worth the price of the book. In ‘Pang’, an abandoned husband’s heart turns to stone; the narrator of ‘This Creeping Thing’ lets her life be taken over by the ghost of her childhood cat; ‘Luxembourg’ is about a woman who has an affair with her brother-in-law when Luxembourg mysteriously disappears, taking her husband with it. Her bewilderment about how to fill her days when she realises he’s not coming back is touching – in one of my favourite lines in the book, she says, “The weekend had always been about Colin, he ran through it like lettering through a stick of rock.” In ‘Sharp’, a husband is bitter about his nondescript wife’s posthumous fame, having been decapitated by African rebels. He describer her irritably: “she was never the sort to jump queues, that was one of her finest qualities.” It’s quiet domestic humour like this that saturates the stories, making this one of the funniest collections I’ve read in ages. Amongst the rest, there’s also an elderly succubus on a Mediterranean cruise-ship and a time-share scratch-card scam that promises ‘dominion over life and death’ as a grand prize.
But not all the stories are absurd or weird, so if you’re a fantasy-phobe and are in the market for something more straight, don’t be afraid – ‘At The Crease’, for example is about a father who can only relate to his son through cricket. But even the more obviously fantastical and absurd tales are still firmly rooted in the real world. In the introduction, Steven Hall (of The Raw Shark Texts fame) says, “Ultimately, this is a book about people: ordinary, stupid, love-struck, empty, happy, broken, cheating, devoted, laughing, crying, confused people.” That pretty much sums it up.
Any Cop?: Hell, yes. This is almost exasperatingly readable – not a pretension in sight, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny as well as being exquisitely tender. These are short stories for people who say they don’t like short stories – I swear it’ll convert them. I’ll stop gushing. BUY THIS.