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Book Review: Gifts For The One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall

“These stories continually amaze and beguile!”

GiftsHelen Marshall is a Canadian poet and short story writer; Gifts For The One Who Comes After is her second collection of short fiction, after the highly acclaimed Hair Side Flesh Side, both published by ChiZine.

Marshall’s work is fantastical and surreal, with similarities to that of writers like Kelly Link and Robert Shearman. But whereas Link’s stories can sometimes seem wilfully opaque, Marshall’s are built round an emotional core that is always engaging; whereas Robert Shearman might use his twisted plots for the purposes of dark comedy, Marshall’s stories are full of heartbreak and hurt.

The collection begins with ‘The Hanging Game’, introducing the reader to some of the book’s key themes: childhood, wanting to fit in, and the collective memory of families or societies. There’s a touch of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery about the ritual played in a remote rural town, but the story is more subtle in its effect. Like all the best stories about childhood this is actually a story about leaving childhood behind; the strangeness of the hanging game will have effects long into adult life. Similarly, ‘Supply Limited, Act Now’ is about a toy with mysterious powers: a mail order shrink-ray that actually works. Marshall uses this potentially light-hearted setup to write about the theme of growing up, and the loss that might entail: the kids’ home town shrinks, never to seem as large again.

Another story about a mysterious toy, ‘The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass’, looks to the past instead of the future. Danny receives a telescope as a gift from his father, who tells him that when he looks at the stars he is actually seeing backwards in time, their light having taken so long to reach us. Danny realises he can use the telescope to see the history of his own life too, and understand the cause of his parents’ break up. But he may wish he hadn’t done so.

‘Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta’ takes another concept that in the wrong hands could be trite – that of a young woman who falls in love with Death – but uses it to tell a strangely moving tale of a relationship through the years. What happens when Death dies? By contrast, ‘In The Year Of Omens’ tells of an adolescent girl called Leah who seemingly wants to die; everyone in her life sees omens leading to their deaths except her and ultimately she is left alone.

And so it goes: the eighteen stories here are greater than the sum of their parts, talking to each other, harmonising and reflecting themes and images without ever becoming repetitive or predictable. From the African plains to sinister Santa Claus factories in America; from Greek Islands to a zoo of extinct creatures, these stories continually amaze and beguile. They follow their own, dream-like logic; some readers may not like the open-ended, ambiguous conclusions, but this style suits Marshall perfectly: these stories linger.

There are a couple of weaker pieces here; ‘A Brief History Of Science Fiction’ seems too slippery for its own good, whilst ‘The Ship House’, one of the longest tales, could have done with being as concise as its neighbours. Neither are actually bad, but in a collection of eighteen stories some of the weakest could have been removed without detrimental effect. But that’s a slight quibble when overall the quality is so high.

Gifts For The One Who Comes After should single out Marshall as one of the most accomplished writers of the fantastic being published today, an exceptional collection likely to be among the best 2014 has to offer.

JAMES EVERINGTON

Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Paperback (300pp)
Release Date: 16 September 2014

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