|THE NEW REVIEW|
Listen to an audio extract from the book on Gaiman’s official website
A new book by Neil Gaiman is always welcome but a short fiction collection is perhaps especially so, because it lets us experience a wide range of his work. Certainly, Gaiman’s remarkable talents are showcased to brilliant effect in ‘Fragile Things’. There are twenty-seven (or should that be twenty-eight?) pieces of fiction in the volume; let’s examine some of them.
‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ begins as the tale of two boys going to a party and encountering those mysterious beings known as girls. There’s a ring of truth about the boys’ awkwardness and bravado; but, in typical Gaiman style, there is more to the party than meets the eye, and the story gains an extra dimension because of it.
As you would expect from its title, ‘Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire’.is a horror spoof – a young man is working on his novel at how badly it is turning out (though it’s hilarious for us). And there’s a delightful twist to proceedings that transforms ‘Forbidden Brides’ from a straightforward parody into something more.
‘Harlequin Valentine’ brings characters from the commedia dell’arte into the present day, as Harlequin gives his heart (literally) to Missy, who is (unbeknownst to her) his Columbine. Gaiman plays fascinating games with notions of identity in this story: his characters are, at the same time, both figures from the commedia and independent individuals. But the tale is highly enjoyable on other levels, with Harlequin’s characters emerging strongly from his distinctive tone of voice.
‘Feeders and Eaters’ is one of the book’s darker entries, the story-in-a-story of Eddie Barrow, a construction worker who is changed beyond all recognition (and not for the better) when he moves in with a family and meets their other boarder, old Miss Corvier, who has unusual taste in food. The ending of the story is relatively easy to second-guess; but ‘Feeders and Eaters’ is actually all the more effective for that. Be aware, though, that it is rather gruesome…
A few of the shorter pieces in ‘Fragile Things’ aren’t quite up to par, but that’s generally because they’re published out of context in this volume. For example, ‘Diseasemaker’s Croup’ first appeared in a book of accounts of fictional diseases – and this particular affliction causes the victim to invent fictional diseases. Whilst I appreciate the aim of this piece, I can’t help thinking it would work better in its original home. Then again, some of the shortest entries are very good indeed; take ‘The Flints of Memory Lane’, which is an account of a true ‘ghost’ story, an incident with all the rough edges one would expect from a fragment of reality – yet Gaiman spins gold from even this unlikely source.
This book is not just a collection of stories; there are poems as well, most of which are beautiful pieces of work. It’s perhaps the poetry that demonstrates most clearly Gaiman’s ability to tap into the basic human longing for stories and wonder and highlight their relevance to today (his prose does as well, of course; but it’s really noticeable in his poems). ‘Locks’, for instance, depicts the author telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to his daughter, linking it poignantly to his contemporary concerns as a parent. ‘The Day the Saucers Came’ tells of all the marvels we could imagine happening at the same time – but not everyone is looking.
After reading ‘Fragile Things’, I am struck by a contradiction. On the one hand, I wish that more people wrote like Neil Gaiman. On the other, Gaiman is such a singular writer, it seems entirely appropriate that there’s only one of him. Anyway, what matters most is that he writes good books, and this collection is magnificent.
Reproduced with permission
David Hebblethwaite lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.
(Headline Review 2006)
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
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