Book Review: Sing Your Sadness Deep by Laura Mauro

“Assured, controlled, poetic and artistic but also grounded in recognisable realities—even while imbued with the fantastic—these stories are remarkable enough individually.”

Back again with another fantastic release from Undertow Publications, and this time it’s the debut collection of Laura Mauro. For those not in the know, Laura has been writing/publishing professionally since about 2012. Her first story, ‘Red Rabbit’ appeared in the fourth volume of Shadows & Tall Trees (also published by Undertow, making this release somewhat of a full circle). Since then, she has had numerous pieces in various anthologies and periodicals including Black Static, Interzone, Imposter Syndrome, and Great British Horror Vol 1: This Green and Pleasant Land. Her short story ‘Looking for Laika’ (Interzone #273) was nominated for and won the British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 2018. And before that, in 2017, her novella Naming the Bones was released through Dark Minds Press to much acclaim. A body of work and accolades any seasoned writer would be proud of. This is all the more impressive considering Laura’s youth and the relatively short span of time she’s been active.

The book opens with ‘Sun Dogs’, a wonderfully evocative piece which feels like a Weird West tale. It’s also a perfect example of the often tricky and less common second-person perspective, giving us more insight of both the protagonist and the subject of her inner monologue than perhaps first or third might have. What’s also immediately apparent is just how strong a voice Laura has. No words are wasted, yet she also writes with a clear sense of the poetic. The story is shot through with a sense of melancholia, with loss, but also a fire. This sensibility reoccurs throughout the collection. ‘Obsidian’ mixes Finnish mythology with a broken family. A teenage girl with the burden of protecting her younger, frailer sister. Again, there is that aspect of sadness, of characters who feel lost in the chaos of the world around them. But this time, there is also a note of hope, of release. Heart-breaking and beautiful. The oldest story here, ‘Red Rabbit’ certainly doesn’t feel any less skilful than the others, here. A short piece that feels post-apocalyptic—nothing specific, merely the imagery, setting and the sense of the characters being adrift—it’s as much about what isn’t said as what is. It’s also about the fragility of life, its impermanence and randomness. Grim, nihilistic, yet also strangely beautiful.

‘Letters from Elodie’ is yet another deeply melancholic story, with a main character aching from loss. It’s a paean to love, to obsession, to deep, possessive need. Again, Laura taps into a sense of tender, painful vulnerability as her protagonist recalls the woman she loved but who couldn’t really love her back. With ‘The Grey Men’, we are presented with an outlandish scenario—hundreds of faceless grey men appear above a town in England, suspended in the air. No-one knows why or how. What should be a concept incapable of suspending disbelief is presented with plausibility. That’s down to the writing, which slips the scenario into the story naturally, detailing reactions in an authentic, believable manner. It’s also a story that weaves in the spectre of numb depression and has moments of real affecting poignancy. Next up is ‘Ptichka’, a strange, alternate-universe (some might say, frighteningly prescient, considering current UK events … ) story that mixes the plight of immigrants with an unnatural pregnancy. Though just as beautifully written and observed as the preceding stories, it feels, perhaps, just a little too short to really dig into its various themes.

With ‘When Charlie Sleeps’, Laura gives us a story that’s weird, beautiful, and completely believable for its duration. Again, it feels like an alternate reality, subtly different from our own. A strange creature living in a bathtub in a run-down flat in London seems to be somehow connected to the city. When asleep, all is calm. When awake, its dreams shape reality. A wonderfully detailed setting, and some pitch-perfect beats of empathy, emotion, and characterisation really bring this story to life. The first of two originals to this collection, ‘In the City of Bones’ is an immersive dark fantasy, haunting and inventive. With a deep empathy for its physically scarred protagonist, it moves—with natural worldbuilding and scene-setting—from a creeping dread to a redemptive, almost uplifting finale. More beautifully wrought characterisation fills its pages. ‘The Looking-Glass Girl’ is another story that has as much between its lines as it does within them. A story of family secrets and hauntings—real or imagined, or both—it asks the reader to fill in the carefully placed gaps and is all the more powerful for doing so.

Twin sisters on the cusp of teenage-hood, terminal illness, and suspected changelings—a possible coping mechanism—abound in ‘In the Marrow’. Heart-breaking and heartfelt with a most devastating ending; yet there is also a touch of hope. Absolutely stunning. ‘Looking for Laika’. Ah, so easy to see why this won the British Fantasy Award. Set in the 80s, at the height of the Cold War, a teenage boy lives in terror of nuclear war. He also acts as surrogate parent to his much younger sister, a fearless child still infused with wonder and imagination. On finding out from their Grandfather about the dog Russians sent into space (the Laika of the title), the brother invents stories of her canine adventures. This one is absolutely devastating. Achingly beautiful, moving, and terrifying in equal measure, only a heart of stone could remain unaffected. Fully drawn characters, layered emotive moments, this novelette is a tapestry of various themes that work seamlessly. Even when it moves into alternate-universe territory, it remains compelling and affecting. One of the best short stories of recent years. Phew. Following this is ‘Strange as Angels’, wherein a couple rescue a strange creature they dub an angel after hitting it with their car. The story is an assured discourse in obsession, in broken, uneven relationships, in the beauty that often exists in horror. Assuredly written, it’s ambiguous and deeply weird and convinces absolutely.

Finally, we have the second original short. ‘The Pain-Eater’s Daughter’ is rooted in cultural mores of the Romani people. A teenage girl gains some insight into a service her father provides to terminally ill people, a service that comes with a cost to his own health. Another one about people who feel outside of society—whether by their own choice or others—it’s another dark tale that flecks its narrative with slight optimism. It’s also a fascinating insight into a facet of an ethnic group most will be ignorant of, and many will be intolerant of.

As far as single author collections go in general, Sing Your Sadness Deep is up there with some of the best. For a debut, though, it’s quite impressive. Considering this is a snapshot of a writer essentially at the beginning of their career, one can only boggle at what they might yet have to achieve. Laura’s body of work so far—connected by themes of lost or discarded people, of sadness and grief but also fragile, delicate optimism, and not a little steel—is something to behold. Assured, controlled, poetic and artistic but also grounded in recognisable realities—even while imbued with the fantastic—these stories are remarkable enough individually. Collected, they form a powerful experience. This collection will be lauded far and wide for years to come and is one you definitely don’t want to miss.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications
Hardback: 236 (pps)
Release Date: 6 August 2019

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