Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

"The fantastic book of everybody's secrets" by Sophie Hannah (Sort Of Books, 2008)

I like Hannah's novels. I've not read any of her stories before. The first story here, "The Octopus Nest", was enjoyable, the 2nd was ok, but I struggled to complete the 3rd, "We All Say What We Want" (45 pages), about Tom - "Nobody appreciated his talents or his personality, so he had stopped using the former and hidden the latter" (p.43); "Honesty, openness, the direct approach - Tom felt about these the way most people felt about hand grenades" (p.45). Tom's not the only character in the book to create chasms between what they say and what they feel. "You can love people and still be utterly alone in the world" (p.57) says his wife. I also struggled with "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets" though it ended well. The main character wants to edit a book of people's secrets, so she puts a collection box in her workplace. We discover in the end that she has a big secret.

Such role-reversal's common in these pieces. Stalker becomes stalked, exploiter exploited. There are sticklers, obsessives, people who don't accept coincidences, people who bottle up revenge, people who discuss and rationalise. They all suffer.

I can believe the first person narrative of "Twelve Noon". The main character's not as far gone as the one in Healey's novel "Elizabeth is Missing". There's a mix of show and tell in the presentation of her mental state, a fluctuation of self-awareness - "I was too distressed to speak, and missed what happened next. The scene broke down into particles. I couldn't process anything properly" (p.131)

In "The Nursery Bear" the wife of a couple says "The efficient and enthusiastic transferral of vast amounts of necessary and unnecessary information was our strength" (p.146). Trouble begins when she doesn't want to tell him something. The main character thinks "I reminded myself that appearances could be deceptive" (p.152), something that many characters in the book would do well to repeat. The story's rather protracted. The ending, though good, could have been crisper.

"The Tub" isn't really worth it. "You are a gongedip" is boring. Some of these characters are difficult to depict without boring the reader but verbose passages like this don't help

  • I noticed immediately that there was a person standing next to my front garden, on the other side of the hedge. I glanced at the figure out of the corner of my eye. The head and shoulders were all I could see above the neat rectangular wall of privet, and these were covered by a bizarre item of clothing that was a cross between a shawl and a hood. Is such a garment called a snood? I believe it is; I wouldn't have dreamed that word up out of nowhere. / I took in that the figure was wearing a snood then (p.252)
  • 'I have no idea why you're standing outside my house in disguise,' I said honestly. If I'd put my mind to it, I'm sure I could have come up with a workable theory, but as I had nothing to gain by doing so, I didn't bother. I pushed my bike back and forth, listening to the tempting click and whir of its wheels, wishing Maria would disappear. Then it occurred to me that appearing to cooperate might be a more efficient way to get rid of her. So I applied myself, and tried to think about why she might, a year after we'd last spoken, be lurking outside my house with her head and shoulders encased in a knitted green tube (p.253)

"Herod's Valentines" is over 50 pages long. Such stories are hard for writers to abandon, but that should have been this story's fate. Too few paragraphs are subjected to cost-benefit analysis, too many dead horses are flogged. The same could be said for the book, though there some are characters, plots and phrases worth cannibalising -

  • "We appeared to have run out of things to say to one another; that, at least, was my hope" (p.149)
  • "She often laughed when Erica disagreed with her, not sneerily, but with a sort of astonished admiration. Erica had noticed this, and tried to contradict Flora whenever she could" (p.198)
  • "'He's started doing that awful mock-honesty thing" (p.200)

Other reviews

  • Emma Hagestadt (related with a relish rarely matched since the outrĂ© offerings of Roald Dahl)
  • Mark Andresen (The quality of Hannah’s writing is high and consistent, although I found the sitcom-type stories held much less interest than those told as ambiguous mysteries)
  • vulpeslibris (Nearly all of the 10 stories in this collection are about people displaying passive-aggression in a big way)
  • Goodreads

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