It used to be that authors would often start their publishing careers with a collection of short stories before graduating to a full-length novel. Mark Haddon has gone about things the other way around, pushing out three fine novels before attempting a collection of short stories. His first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, was a big hit and beautifully captured the voice of a boy on the edge of the Aspergers spectrum.
His new book of short stories is utterly brilliant. The nine stories contained in The Pier Falls are beautifully crafted, realistic, gritty, funny and poignant. All the stories are good, but two of them stood out to me as being exceptional, for different reasons.
The first, which lends its title to the whole collection, reads like a disaster scenario from a Civil Defence training exercise. A catalogue of events as the rusting pier of an English south coast town buckles and breaks and all manner of mayhem breaks out. The story charts the impact on all those in the area over the course of the first few minutes and then over the subsequent hours. Families literally thrown in different directions. People in the water, people trapped at the end of the pier and others running for their lives. And then the reactions and responses of those around. Those that plunge into the sea to rescue people in the water and those who simply stand and stare until the police and rescue services arrive. The beauty of the tale is its detachment, its clinical description of horrors unfolding.
My favourite story is called Wodwo and is the longest of the nine tales. There was something familiar about the title that reminded me of the old word Woodwose, an ancient name in the UK for a wild man or the green man of legend who lived wild in the woods and forests of the mediaeval world. According to Mark Haddon the word he was using came from the mediaeval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and was a word for a serpent. Whatever its origin, I was neither prepared nor expecting the way that this might play out in a modern day story. The Cooper family is gathering on Christmas Eve. Two sons and a daughter are making their way, along with their various children and spouses, to their parents’ home for the annual ritual. Part of why this story works so well for me is the wonderful accuracy of how these relationships play out and are clinically observed. The eldest, arrogant son, Gavin has brought an extravagant ninety pound bottle of wine that he knows only his father will appreciate, while his sister Sarah has brought a three pound box of After Eight mints to offset the grand gesture that she knows her brother is bound to make. These little observations make the story bubble with life. What happens next is so totally unexpected and also impossible, that it forces the reader into an unexpected position. We no longer take the story seriously, because of the impossibility, but because everything else continues to be plausible and realistic we are forced to do what the characters in the story do, to carry on and push the impossibility out of our minds. I like the way this is done. We have to accept and carry on just like the characters do. We have to watch while the whole horror of the story unfolds. It is brilliant and I love it.
The stories in The Pier Falls have been called “dark” by some reviewers, but in reality I think they are very much like real life, the things that fascinate and intrigue us are often the bizarre or the macabre. One of my favourite books of 2016.