Tuesday, 27 January 2009

‘We never talk about my brother’ – Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon Press)

Do you ever get that feeling when all you want to read is something short and sweet? Something that will keep you ticking over on the journey to work or something that you can just dip in and out of over a quick lunch break... That’s the mood I’ve been in just recently and ‘We never talk about my brother’ was the slimmest looking book on the shelf (a slender two hundred and eleven pages long), ‘just the job’ I thought.
How wrong I was... ‘We never talk about my brother’ is not a book that can be easily put down. In fact, it is one of those rare books when I ended up wishing that my commute (which I hate with a passion) could last just five minutes longer. It’s a book that is easy to get into but not so easy to escape, I didn’t want to escape.

However, as with any short story collection, not everything hit the spot. By special request, I’m going to take this one story at a time and tell you a little about what I thought...

Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel.
I think Beagle took a gamble here by starting his collection with a story that starts really slowly and doesn’t speed up. Stick with it though, it’s worth it. I’m not sure who the story was meant to be about and that was part of the charm that it held for me. This is one that I could go back and read over and over again.

We never talk about my brother.
And once you’ve read this story you will understand why. Could a network anchorman be an Angel of Death? If he is then what does that make his DIY store owning older brother...? This story shows very well what happens when two deus ex machina clash but it is also a tale of family and the responsibilities of an older sibling. It builds up slowly into a crescendo of a climax which I wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to me right at the end (it’s only a few words long). Very intense stuff.

The Tale of Junko and Sayuri.
A cautionary tale of how getting what you wish for can cost you everything. Interestingly though it doesn’t come across as saying that you should be content with what you have. Advance by all means but don’t overstretch yourself. This one grew slowly on me; Sayuri’s shape shifting ability is never overstated and thereby avoids becoming the focal point of the story. The climax completely wrong footed me but there turned out to be a really good reason for it... I felt like I’d read this one before but I was still hooked right up until it ended.

King Pelles the Sure.
In the introduction to this story, Beagle mentions that Darryl Brock described this tale as the best anti-war story he has ever read. On the one hand I can see where he is coming from but, on the other hand, the stupidity and short sightedness of the king was emphasised a little too much to make the reasons for war truly believable. ‘King Pelles the Sure’ is a compelling read though, especially for the redemption that it offers at the end.

The Last and Only, or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French.
I think this was my favourite of the bunch. A man comes back from holidaying in France only to find that he is slowly becoming more French in every way. No explanation is given for this, only a remorseless march towards an inescapable conclusion. This is a tale that is partly whimsical and partly sad but touching the whole way through.

A ghost challenges the new tenant of a flat to a duel. The prize? Ownership of the property and a beautiful woman. The weapons? Bad poetry (truly bad poetry)... I liked the concept and the build up but felt a little let down by the duel itself which became a showcase for bad poetry rather than an actual duel. If you’ve got the weapon in your armoury then you use it straight away, you don’t save it up for last...
The poems were awful though.

The Stickball Witch.
Not a bad story in itself but I found this to be my least favourite of the bunch as it slipped into the ‘real world’ a little too much and lost something (as a result) when compared to the more speculative nature of the others. Not bad though if you take it purely as a ‘childhood tale’.

By Moonlight.
This is another tale that’s a slow starter but is worth sticking around for, a highwayman (on the run) meets a priest who is older than he looks and has a tale to tell... ‘By Moonlight’ offers a beautiful look at the world of fairy ‘under the hill’ and then leaves everything hanging in a state of potential upheaval with a deliberately vague ending that has still got me thinking about what could have happened next...

Fantasy is my thing but ‘Chandail’ didn’t really do it for me on that score, possibly because (as it’s a short story) I didn’t really have much time to get a feel for the world itself... As a story of mercy, and putting the past behind you, it’s well worth sticking around for. The spin placed on the established ‘mermaid myth’ is very interesting as well.

One thing that all the stories share is their pace which can be rather slow at times. This isn’t a bad thing though as it gives Beagle time to gradually set the reader up for what is to come at the end, the climax isn’t necessarily the finale...
Not all of the stories worked for me but there was enough in all of them to make this an enthralling collection that I’m glad I picked up. I might just have to search out more by this author...

Nine out of Ten

1 comment:

Colinhead said...

211 pages for that many stories? That is truly short fiction. Contrast that to the steampunk novel I just finished, which had up to 80 pages for each short story.