I was drawn to read Escape Routes when I learned that the author used to be a bookseller at one of my favourite shops in Bath, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It was only when I read the acknowledgements that I realised she is also the daughter of Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro – quite the pedigree for an aspiring author. I subsequently discovered that, in April of last year, Tinder Press ‘snapped up’ this, her debut short story collection. I am pleased not to have known these facts before I started reading. It is a book that could easily have come from the carefully curated lists of my beloved small indie presses rather than the accountant driven committees of one of the big five publishers (that I suspect can stymie the literary passion of commissioning editors and publicists).
Enough. This eclectic book is so good.
There are nine short stories in the collection although three are one story presented as a trilogy. Titled, The Rat Catcher, this divided tale is set in a kingdom suffering from rodent infestation and associated disease. The new young king has gone into seclusion, abandoning his rundown palace to his half sister. The titular rat catcher is commanded to rid the palace of its vermin. Unbeknownst to him, his work will stoke a family feud with unsettling consequences. The writing is fable like with elements that are dark alongside the playfulness.
The opening tale, Wizards, features a ten year old misfit, Alfie, who is counting down the days to his next birthday when he expects to attain magical powers.
“he realised he loved being on holiday. Perhaps most of all like this, alone, the sea like a magic door or threshold he just had to cross to find another place where the things to be afraid of were clear, monstrous things you could face down with weapons and with shouting and heroic resolution, like magic beasts or evil armies. He would be much more suited to a life like that, he considered, than the one he had been allocated here.”
Alfie is in Brighton with his sad, controlling mother and her out of work partner when the child encounters a man working a beach booth as a fortune teller. Luciano the Diviner, also known as Peter, has ideas of himself as: a dude, a child of the universe, catching rays, drinking in the beauty of a place, living for the moment. Peter’s confidence in his self-styled persona is too often punctured by a voice in his head that reminds him, annoyingly, of his eminently sensible father. Peter’s reaction to Alfie sets of a potentially catastrophic chain of events, for both of them.
Bear is the story of a newly wed couple who buy the titular large, stuffed animal and then find it becomes a metaphor for their marriage. It is a fine evocation of how love can cause individuals to invent the person they want their beloved to be, blinding them to reality and creating lonely resentment.
In a strong field, the prose in Heart Problems impressed. Dan is living in London with his fiancée, Beatrice, but is deeply unsettled.
“it is so uncomfortable, so unpleasant to exist here in this city, only the fittest allowed to survive and all the elderly and children tidied into hospitals, nurseries, and goodness knows where else, conveniently out of sight.”
Without a job, Dan spends his days wandering the streets, talking only briefly each day to a newspaper vendor. His father, back in Ireland, is ill and Dan misses the life he and Beatrice had amongst their mutual friends in Dublin. In trying to articulate how he feels, he dwells on his fear of being unwell. He keeps a suitcase packed with ‘essentials’ and imagines escaping.
“I added a compass, because it’s always useful, I’ve decided, to know where you are in relation to something fixed, even if you’re unsure of where you’re going.”
What keeps him in London is Beatrice, but he is unconvinced this is enough to sustain him.
“Beatrice is one of those individuals who is consciously trying very hard to be a good person. Not that she isn’t naturally a good person. It’s just that she’s always making such an effort at it”
Another favourite story was Shearing Season. Jamie is a ‘strangely gifted eleven-year old’ who wants to be an astronaut but lives on a remote sheep farm in the Lake District. When Miles, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering, comes to lodge at the farm the boy sees a potential opportunity to ‘break into the space travel industry’. Miles sets Jamie a series of tests. The denouement of this tale is exquisitely rendered.
Accelerate is a fabulous read – layered and nuanced with the added bonus of a scene set on a hill not far from where I live. It gently mocks office work, and unrealistic expectations in relationships where each partner will try to mould the other rather than accepting difference. I wasn’t convinced that the dialogue section fitted (I am reviewing a proof so it is possible this will be changed in the final edit). I adored what the author did with the starling murmuration. The poignant ending was perfect.
The Flat Roof is one of the shorter of the stories and offers less breadth and progression. It is a study of grief, the weight of it, again using avian imagery.
The voices used throughout are original, quirky in places but perfectly fitting the structures employed and character development.
An enjoyable, striking collection with a fine balance of contemporary elements and more mythical themes. This is an author to watch (in her own right) and a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.