Why tell a story? Well… Maybe to throw light on some dusty corner of humanity, or challenge a worldview. A writer might be driven to transmit a warning – perhaps underscore some moral message. Of course a story does not have to be a vehicle – telling a good tale is its own reward: to spin a yarn, make us laugh, or simply to sketch out different lives and invite the reader to walk in someone else’s shoes. A story can lay down a marker – capture a state, an emotion, a time and place; tell the world that out of six billion souls shuffling along the same coil, these characters whom you will never meet, matter.
In Stories From Other Places, Nicholas Shakespeare exhibits all the above motivations. From a faded Englishwoman in 1960s Bombay, an Argentinian sheep farmer’s wife, and a young Bolivian spellbound by Parisian raunch – Shakespeare gives us rounded, complex and yet instantly recognisable characters who straddle time, space and age. Indeed the variety on display in this collection makes it very special. There’s variation in length, in pace as well as emotional temperature, with ennui giving way to the bloody hilarious. On the contentious subject of white farmers in Africa, Shakespeare has written a hugely partisan but breath-taking story from the perspective of that beleaguered community. And why not? The writer is, after all, merely inviting the reader to see the world through other eyes. It’s the very essence of this collection, the thread that binds it together – Stories From Other Places is literary globetrotting at its very best.
Noteworthy for a male writer is Shakespeare’s penchant for, and skill in handling, female protagonists. (The cover design takes its cue from a tale about a ninety-year-old wanting to end her life, before deciding instead to go bird-watching with her great grandson). But in step with the mentioned variation on display here, Shakespeare is not shy of laying the male spirit bare too, as evinced in a story about an English jerk and his verbose ramblings:
“Silkleigh’s words are lost in the noise of an engine revving. Outside the Copacabana, it’s getting dark. A girl arranges her legs on the back of a motorbike and I see it’s the small girl from the dock. Her hair hangs in a long wet rope down her back. She lifts a bare leg high over the exhaust pipe and her skirt falling over the tail light of the motorbike glows red.”
Any Cop?: In Stories From Other Places, we get to journey with a cornucopia of deceptively simple characters. And through them, Shakespeare is inviting us to connect with everyday people, who otherwise will never cross our paths. And thus take note of the currents that move us all.