Hello, people of the internet!
I don’t think I read as many short stories as I should. Even though I write them now and again, I just don’t read a lot of them. They are interesting forms of literature and are just as powerful as novels. So when I came across this collection of short stories written by Mark Haddon, I was very interested. I have only read his most popular work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I realised that since Mark Haddon wrote that novel in a first person narrative from Christopher Boone, who has autistic-like behaviours, I didn’t know how he would write with other characters. To investigate further, I got this short story collection to see if his writing is just as brilliant here as it is with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
So, I decided to present this review as a Top 9 list, showing you lovely people which stories I liked the most. Because who doesn’t like Top *insert number here* lists?
Anyway, enough about me and my love for lists, here is what I thought of Mark Haddon’s short story collection!
Title: The Pier Falls
Author: Mark Haddon
Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publishers: Jonathan Cape
An expedition to Mars goes terribly wrong. A seaside pier collapses. A thirty-stone man is confined to his living room. One woman is abandoned on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. Another woman is saved from drowning. Two boys discover a gun in a shoebox. A group of explorers find a cave of unimaginable size deep in the Amazon jungle. A man shoots a stranger in the chest on Christmas Eve.
In this first collection of stories by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon demonstrates two things: first that he is a master of the short form (several of the stories have been longlisted for prizes), second that his imagination is even darker than we had thought.
9) The Gun
Two boys discover a gun in a shoebox.
I can say for sure that this story is atmospheric. It is tense and dark with characters that make you feel on edge. I read through this one just fine, but I do have a few problems with it. The Gun doesn’t feel like a complete story to me. It does set everything up well, but after I read it, I felt a little lost. Almost like, “Was that all? What on earth did I just read?” Also, there is a focus in this story, but it doesn’t go anywhere. I’ll have to talk about it for a bit, so expect some spoilers. The third-person narrator talks about when one looks back at the past and wonders if things happened a little differently to what actually occurred, then life would be completely different. Originally, I was intrigued as to what happened in the story, so I continued reading. It turns out two boys go into the woods, one of them accidentally shoots a deer having thought it was a person about to attack them, and they take the deer back and one of the boys’ families skins the deer on top of their council flat. Daniel, the protagonist, has a choice between staying with the family to skin the deer or go home. That was what the whole ‘if you made this choice instead, life would be completely different’ idea was leading up to. I’ll be honest and say I was slightly disappointed.
This may not be my kind of short story, but it wasn’t a terrible story either. It just wasn’t a story for me.
Funnily enough, this story isn’t mentioned in the blurb for some reason. The other eight stories do, so why not this one? Anyway, here is my idea of what the story is about.
A woman returns to look after her sick mother after a long absence.
This story focuses more on a very dysfunctional family where a woman, who hasn’t made contact with her family for years, returns to face what her refusal to communicate has done to her family. This is definitely a dark story with a sad ending (as it is with every story in this book, which I’ll discuss more in a bit). There aren’t any characters I liked or connected with, but they are characters I found interesting nonetheless. I may not have been emotionally invested with them, but I carried on regardless to discover how they came to be this way. If I felt more invested, then this story would have had more of an impact on me, like some others in this book, but it’s still a well-written, dark story.
7) The Weir
Another woman is saved from drowning.
What I liked the most about this story is the relationship between the main character, Ian, and the mentally ill woman he saves from drowning. It is indeed a strange relationship, not like any relationship I’ve seen in books before. The more they meet, the more Ian realises how depressed he is due to his divorce and wayward son whereas the woman’s character remains more or less the same. They are interesting characters with somewhat complex issues and personalities. I can’t say for sure if I like them or not, but I can say that I wanted to know more about them. Would that ruin the story itself if I knew more? Possibly.
6) The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear
A group of explorers find a cave of unimaginable size deep in the Amazon jungle.
One of the most depressing stories in this collection. Sure, all of these stories are depressing in one way or another, but The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear had an impact on me. In fact, I read this story before I went to bed and I was so shaken by what happened, I had to read something more light-hearted to cheer me up before going to sleep. Of course, I should say that it isn’t a bad thing at all. It works to the story’s advantage by creating a tense, lonely atmosphere as well as demonstrating the dark sides to exploring. What I also liked about this story is its change of setting. Though I do recommend that you shouldn’t read all these stories straight after the other (because all these stories are so depressing, that it makes you feel just as gloomy as the stories themselves – believe me, I’m speaking from my personal reading experience of this book), if you want to do so then a change of setting is welcome. It helps makes these stories more individual, in that they aren’t too similar that it’s like reading the same story over and over again. A miserable story about the dangers and loneliness of exploration, and quite a good one at that.
5) The Woodpecker and the Wolf
An expedition to Mars goes terribly wrong.
Remember what I wrote about how having a change of setting in a short story collection is a good thing? I hope so, I did just mention it Well, The Woodpecker and the Wolf is the only science-fiction short story in this collection and I was very excited to see another change in genre. I wondered how Mark Haddon would tackle this genre and what he would do with it. And what he does is quite good. The growing isolation and doom made this story very tense and even borderline terrifying. I wanted Clare, the main character, to make it out okay. What I will say that the ending may not be necessarily a happy one, it’s quite mysterious and works well with the overall atmosphere. If Mark Haddon ever decided to write more science fiction, I’ll definitely be reading it.
4) The Island
One woman is abandoned on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean.
Yet another story with a change of genre. This one doesn’t explicitly specify what this story was based on, but I understood anyway since I am interested in Greek mythology. You see, the woman is Ariadne, who is left on the island by Theseus after he killed the Minotaur (who, in this version, is a deformed human). This isn’t entirely faithful to the original myths, but that isn’t a problem since there are many versions of those myths anyway. Besides, this story works whether or not the reader is familiar with the myths. Anyone can understand the plot and follow Ariadne in her fight for survival. A dark story as usual, but, as with expected with Mark Haddon, still well-written.
A thirty-stone man is confined to his living room.
After reading the entire book, I can safely say that Mark Haddon is very good when it comes to creating isolated, lonely characters and putting them together. The relationship between Bunny, the thirty-stone man, and Leah, the woman who begins to regularly visit him, is interesting and gets the story going. I liked reading the story when they were together because I liked to see them together. They worked well with one another and it created more depth with their personalities and their relationship. I was emotionally invested in them both. As with short stories, their characters isn’t as complex as it would have been if it were a novel, but then again, I’m glad this isn’t a novel. Bunny is a great short story and it worked very well as it is.
A man shoots a stranger in the chest on Christmas Eve.
This is the longest story in the whole collection, but it is still well paced. In fact, the length of this story allows what I think is the biggest change in character to occur in this book. You see, Gavin, the protagonist, begins as a successful yet arrogant TV presenter. When he shoots the stranger, who comes back to life to say he will return to do the same to Gavin in a year’s time, Gavin’s life begins to disintegrate before him, losing everything due to his actions on Christmas Eve. This story, like The Island, is based on another story called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but luckily you don’t have to know this in order to fully understand the story. It has a fable-like feel to it, which I think really adds to the impact. It is a fantastic story, which I would strongly recommend.
1) The Pier Falls
A seaside pier collapses.
That is all that happens. A pier collapses and people die. It is written in a way that feels like an observer, who in the distance knows and sees everything that happens, and rather bluntly recalls it to the reader. It’s a simple concept showing before, during and after the disaster, but it is the best story in this book. You don’t get to know these characters well, but regardless you feel emotionally involved. I would describe it as how one would react to a disaster in real life; you may not necessarily know the people who sadly die in disasters, but you acknowledge anyway that they are human beings with families, feelings and hopes, so you are emotionally torn why they perish in a horrific way. The disaster itself is horrific; both adults and children are killed; there are heroes, cowards and those who merely spectate; relationships are both destroyed and created. The Pier Falls is the perfect story to start this book off with. I don’t think there has ever been a short story that made me feel more involved and horrified like this. That’s why The Pier Falls is my favourite story in this book.
Before I finish this review, I’d like to mention that there are also illustrations between stories. They don’t necessarily have anything to do with the stories themselves, but I really like them. They are drawn by Mark Haddon himself. If you buy this book, I would recommend taking a minute to really look at them.
I will give this short story collection 4 stars out of 5. They are all equally dark and glum, perhaps one of the most miserable books I’ve ever read, but it is an excellent piece of work. There may have some problems, but it was worth the read.
Thank you for reading!