Book Review: This House of Wounds by Georgina Bruce

“A rich, dense, deeply artistic yet solid collection, that showcases some of the best short stories currently being written.”

 

Many, many times, this site has lauded the books of independent press, Undertow Publications. Both design/presentation and the contents within. They manage to surpass each perfect release with the one that follows. This year sees something of a UK invasion of horror/weird writers who happen to be women—one that began in 2018, in a way, with Priya Sharma’s excellent collection, All the Fabulous Beasts (reviewed on this site). 2019’s slate has Laura Mauro’s debut collection, Sing Your Sadness Deep, and we’ve already seen a stunning limited-edition release of Lynda E. Rucker’s debut collection, The Moon Will Look Strange. But for the moment, the spotlight shines on Georgina Bruce, British Fantasy Award winner, whose debut collection, This House of Wounds, has recently landed to great acclaim.

This House of Wounds is a difficult book to review. Partly because the contents don’t fall into easy interpretation or categorisation. This is no light summer read for the beach, to be raced through then cast aside without further thought. Instead, we have twisting, opaque, dream-image pages that require effort on the reader’s part. Themes, imagery, names and places, references to certain classic works, even specific words recur throughout, making it somewhat of a loose, fragmented novel. That’s not to say each story isn’t satisfying and complete on its own. They are, immensely so. It’s simply that they all fit together like pieces of a puzzle, a jigsaw. It’s obvious from reading these works that Georgina is a writer who pursues art, who gives full reign to her muse. Yet she still maintains a tight leash on the writing; it’s an astonishing mesh of free-flowing, artistic vision and tightly controlled, sharp yet lyrical prose.

We open with ‘The Lady of Situations’, which mixes a kind of science-fiction, a dark, primal horror, and a twisting, time-jumping narrative that allows for a multitude of interpretation. It could be the events are actually happening, or are in the psyche of the main character, or even some sort of slipstream mix of dream and reality. Either way, it’s a fantastic opener, and sets the tone nicely. ‘Red Queening’ takes imagery and conceits from Alice in Wonderland and twists them into some grim, futuristic—or alternate reality—world that could equally be the distant past. A world of doppelgangers, clones, and broken machines. And poetic prose that’s both beautiful and deadly. Next is ‘Her Bones the Trees’, which threads exploitative film-making with an almost folk-horror aesthetic, one mired in blood and wildness. It also, like the previous two stories, touches upon identity and reality, and forces the reader to seek meaning behind its images.

‘Cat World’ is another take on science-fiction—that of alternate realities, perhaps a kind of virtual world similar to Jeff Noon’s Vurt books. But it’s also a heart-breaking depiction of abuse, of lives ruined and violated, and innocence destroyed. If this one doesn’t make you cry, you’re dead already. In ‘The Book of Dreems’, we are presented with another science-fiction scenario, one of machines and fractured memory. The word in the title is also deliberately misspelled, a word that repeats throughout the collection. An intertwining narrative of original, fantastical mythology and a lost man with no shadow is ‘The Shadow Men’. Powerful, obscure, and full of dark, twisting emotion, it’s another stunning piece that suggests wider world-building, not just for itself, but for the book as whole.

‘Kuebiko’ is perhaps the most twisting of stories, told from/with a multitude of viewpoints and methods. It’s about family, memory (often unreliable), secrets, and deep, deep emotion. All of it accompanied by lines from Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’. One of the shortest offerings, ‘Dogs’, is a strange story of a man who seems to be in some kind of hospital, receiving treatment. He also has a dog mask he wears. Over the short course of the tale, it becomes attached to him. Or perhaps it always was. Conventional chronology is not always apparent in this rather lovely little oddity, which carries an undercurrent of threat, of distressing danger. This is followed by ‘Wake up, Phil’, an homage to Philip K. Dick. He also makes an appearance in the story, or at least a “facsimile” of him does. This story in particular shows Georgina’s skill and range; she channels the style of Dick in her story, whilst also keeping her own voice and thematic concerns. A wonderful, masterful, paranoiac story that folds in and in on itself.

‘Crow Voodoo’ is another short piece, but one filled with a plethora of original mythology and fantastical concepts. It feels like a dark fairy-tale from another era, one whose meanings and lessons are slippery and ambiguous. Again, there is that underlying sense of danger and sharp edges. ‘The Queen of Knives’ could be about self-harming, about mental health; or it could be about the dark side of the psyche, our potential for violent acts. Or it could be a dark, supernatural story. It could be all these things at once. In ‘The Art of Flying’, there is the sense of the apocalyptic, the quiet kind where the world is slowly winding down, although that may just be from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s there in Maggie’s long-haul trucking journeys, driving as much to escape a violent, awful past as to earn a living. It’s there in the religious services that occur on roadsides, beneath underpasses, transient and sparsely attended. It’s also a rather beautiful work, fragile and melancholic, but also strangely hopeful. Arguably, the most “art-house movie” type story here (and this is a book full of stories that share that particular aesthetic), ‘Little Heart’, is filled with stunning imagery, nuanced and cryptic themes, and allegory. It deals with memory (real or invented), and the legacy our parents leave with us, for good or ill. Pain and neglect and parental failings collide in blood and a beating of black wings.

Then we come to ‘The Art Lovers’. A man travels around Europe on dwindling funds, looking at art, creating his own. He is transient, shallow, often bitter, and seems to be seeking some perfection that doesn’t exist. And when he does appear to find it, he ruins it with anger and violence. A very dark story with a weight of inevitability about it. In ‘The Seas of the Moon’, we are presented with a moody, emotional tale of loss and pain. Powerful, poetic imagery mixes the ambiguous with the subtly melancholic, the human and the mythological. It’s a gorgeous arthouse-style tale that masks as much as it reveals, forcing the reader to work for the meaning. A suitably downbeat entry, that nevertheless contains a thread of hope. Finally, there is ‘White Rabbit’ (the story that won Georgina her British Fantasy Award). It mixes grief and loss in a splintered, nightmarish narrative. The writing here is as strong as anything that’s preceded it—no mean feat—and it’s perhaps the purest expression of Georgina’s style and voice. It’s not easiest of reads but offers rich reward to those willing to meet it on its own terms.

So, there we have it. A rich, dense, deeply artistic yet solid collection, that showcases some of the best short stories currently being written. Georgina is a true artist, but she is also a skilled writer. Her work follows its own muse, dances to its own beat, creates its own music, like the greatest of art. But it also has depth and solidity, a sense that while she is following where her imagery takes her, she is also keeping it tightly structured, crafting and moulding. It is this reviewer’s opinion that Georgina Bruce is one of the finest writers currently working today. Not just in horror and the speculative, not just in the indie presses; but in any genre, at any level. Her work should appeal to anyone who appreciates seriously written, dark tales that meld the literary and genre as well as this. It’s not an easy book by any means and might put off those who like their horror simple and straightforward. This House of Wounds is one of the finest single author collections to arrive in many years, and if there’s any justice in the world, it’ll reach the huge audience it deserves. A book to be read, contemplated, re-read, and savoured for many years.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications
Hardback: (248 pps)
Release Date: 4 June 2019

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