Stephen J Golds
To be published by Close to the Bone 30 April 2021
The publisher kindly provided an advance copy of this book as part of a book tour. The rating above and the thoughts below are all my own.
I’m not generally known as a sensitive soul who gives thought to authors’ feelings. I tell you – I’m only interested in their writing. I like my fiction dark, chock-full of suffering and evil, just like the world. So thank you authors, I am interested in that stuff. I like to think about it. I’m trying to find my way through it, to make sense of it. Your writing is useful to me. But I don’t generally worry whether the author suffers. That’s their lookout, I’ve got problems enough of my own.
Here’s a book that broke me though.
Most of the book is a series of short stories. At the end there are some poems. It’s a slow burn at first, because the author can really write and for a while that deceives you. He puts you in each moment with seductive intensity . The stories are varied, full of voices and colours, vivid places, different lives. Men mostly: it’s a boys’ book. Not misogynist, but women appear almost exclusively as lost objects of desire or comfort, as fruit that has gone sour, as humiliation. It’s all beautifully observed, wryly funny sometimes. Moments of real life, skewered.
But after a while you start feeling the weight of its darkness. There’s the dull darkness of men whose lives never shone, never got lit up, who maybe thought for a moment there was brightness ahead, but found they were wrong – there is plenty of that. Also the darkness of sudden extinction, of disrespect for life, of casual criminal killing – even more of that. But some of it explodes with yet sharper darkness. War stories. I think this author has probably been a soldier.
He writes with chilling passion. Real passion. That’s a fashionable word of course – everyone has to be passionate these days. You’d never get a job as the person who interfaces the cutting edge between corporate composition and future-proofed transition (empties the waste paper baskets) if you don’t declare yourself to be passionate about it. But no, I mean something more old fashioned. I mean passion like THE Passion. Like Christ on the cross. Feeling every second. Knowing, every second, that it has come to this, and it’s going to get worse. Your friends have betrayed you. You never had a wife or kids and you won’t now. There are nails through your hands and feet and an unsurvivable wound in your side. You thought you could save the world. You were wrong. You trusted someone – god perhaps – and they abandoned you. This is all you ended up with. Vinegar on a stick. Thorns in your hair. Soldiers down below, laughing at you. Your eyes drying out and burning.
In the end it got to me. Somewhere between the last few stories and the first few poems. (Why did I have to read the poems? Didn’t I see the warning signs?)
As I thought how to review this book, I discovered it had broken me. I wanted to say something sharp and rather clever. It’s a brilliant book, and they’re the best to be mean about: a book this good deserves a bit of excoriation.
Instead I found myself thinking about the author’s pain. Worrying about where these stories came from, what hurt had so blinded him to the possibility of comfort. I wanted to put an arm around him. Give him a hug and make him some hot chocolate. Find a nice girl who would adore him and never let him down. Put a log on the fire and something silly on TV. Point him to a job in some gentle NGO, maybe Scandinavian, with a well filled budget for corporate healthcare and trauma counselling. Somewhere where his kids can grow up safe and he can grow old and fat and happy, with no one carrying a gun. Whatever it was that wounded him, I wanted to help him to forget.
I tell you, this is seriously not healthy, this thinking about the author.
So, yes, I do suggest you take the time to read this book. The stories are brilliantly well written and the poems (though please understand I don’t do poems) are probably pretty talented too. But I’m warning you, don’t think about the author. No good will come of it. If you feel the need, let me reassure you. He may be a perfectly happy chap really. Smart enough to make a living out of the dodgy proclivities of people like you and me, who like our stories dark; grinning while he knocks out another couple of pitch black fables, amused to be extinguishing a bit more joy, while all the time he’s waiting to get down to the pub with his mates, or planning a cosy night in with his missus. Tell yourself that. Don’t think about him, he doesn’t matter. Just read the stories. You might like them.
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