Two flame haired children, from the looks of things, silhouetted against an arctic skyline, with a helicopter buzzing at the peaks in the dim and distant like a dentist’s drill. Across the way, two wolves stand, as guard of their charges or as monitor of their quarry it’s hard to know. It isn’t until you arrive at the final story in Michel Faber’s masterful second collection of short stories that you learn their tale: two children, Tainto’lilith and Marko’cain, raised ‘in almost perpetual Arctic twilight’, on ‘the island of Ostrov Providenya’, by their father (‘Boris … a tall thin German, grey of face and silver of hair, walking always slightly stooped as if the weight of his oversized knitted pullovers was too much for his skeletal frame to bear’) and mother (‘Una … also tall, a blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked Aryan beauty with dyed black hair cut short in a between-the-wars style’). The longest and most peculiar of the tales herein then goes on to encompass parental neglect against a backdrop of anthropological anxiety (Hansel & Gretel singing songs of innocence and experience, if you will).
But we get ahead of ourselves. Prior to that, we get gruesome tales of broken babies (‘The Smallness of the Action’ opens with the line ‘One Wednesday morning, in a moment of carelessness, Christine dropped her baby on the floor and broke him’ and quickly degenerates into the kind of story a parent will find impossible to read – think of it as Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Guts’ but with … errr … guts), acid fictions concerned with death metal (‘Beyond Pain’ concerns the drummer of Corpse Grinder, and a terrible migraine), contemporary reimaginings of the world in which we live (‘The Safehouse’ occupies a world in which the homeless have their stories written in code about their person) and sweetly perfect observances (like ‘Vanilla-Bright like Eminem’ which concerns Don – ‘husband of Alice, father of Drew and Aleesha’ – in the moments immediately preceding ‘the happiest moment of his life’). Faber flirts with writing in a variety of styles. He can ‘do’ Irvine Welsh (‘Someone to kiss it better’ fuck fucken fucks its way from a wee bout of domestic savagery through street brawls, casual throttling, broken ribs and painkillers), Giles Foden (‘Finesse’ concerns the dilemma of a formerly imprisoned surgeon forced to work one last time upon the failing body of a terribler dictator in order to save her husband and children), Edgar Allan Poe (‘Flesh Remains Flesh’ is a skewed and gruesome zombie horror story) and JG Ballard (‘The Eyes of the Soul’ inhabits a grubby housing estate in which huge TVs are affixed to the windows of houses so that their occupants can see that there is in fact a better world) – but each of these stories is uniquely Faber, and – for the most part – uniquely dark.
In ‘A Hole with Two Ends’ Sandra and Neil drive over a wildcat on their way home and stop to see what damage they’ve done – only to become damaged themselves in a ‘half-crushed, half-crazed demon of pure instinct’. ‘All Black’ (like Faber’s novel, Under the Skin) flirts with an unfathomable sci-fi as a father and daughter attempt to travel home as the light of the world fades to ‘a submarine luminescence’. But it isn’t all unremittingly darkness and depravity by any means. Faber’s reach is broad, ranging from the oddly comic (‘Andy Comes Back’ concerns a fella who rouses from a long period of mental inactivity who then attempts to continue his life where he left off) to the bleakly hopeful (‘Serious Swimmers’ finds Gail, a recovering addict, and Ant, her son, tentatively enjoying one of their better supervised visits) to the hilariously pornographic (‘Explaining Coconuts’ sees a group of overweight businessmen work themselves into a lather as a mysterious and beautiful academic describes the ‘super-abundant pneumatophores or respiratory organs’ of the common coconut). All in all, it’s a thoroughly entertaining collection of short stories!
Any Cop?: Yet one more example of why Bookmunch rate Michel Faber so damn highly!