Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets by Sophie Hannah

This is an entertaining and insightful collection of short stories from an author who I believe has written two novels previous to this, but I can't compare this to those as I haven't read them. This was a random library pick, chosen because it is a personal goal to read more short stories this year at it is a form I've neglected recently.

The stories all deal with obsession in its various forms and they focus on the negative aspects that obsession can have on our lives. As with any short story collection some of them were better than others, but I did find with this collection that whilst I enjoyed all the stories at the time of reading some were totally forgettable, but the good ones will stay with me for a long time.

The book starts with the story that won the author an award, the Octopuses Nest. This follows a couple's discovery that for the last ten years the same woman appears to have been stalking them, a fact that they discover because she appears in all their holiday photographs over this period. Needless to say all is not as it seems and the couple are forced to re-assess their whole lives at the end of this story. The build up of tension is superb in this story, and I was actually scared. I think my heart rate was probably raised whilst I was reading it!

Another of my favourites was 'Twelve Noon', a story about a woman who has made a promise to herself to donate £2000 to charity although the disturbing reason for this is revealed gradually throughout the story. Her obsession has obviously affected her life to the point that when she finally ventures out to do this she is totally confused by a simple parking sign.

'Maximum stay 2 hours. No return within 2 hours.'

The woman in this story cannot figure this sign out and eventually ends up deciding that she must park for exactly 2 hours. She sees this as an omen that she must do what she has promised, although it is clear from the writing that she doesn't want to. But having made the promise she needs to keep it, or something bad might happen. Just like something bad might happen if she doesn't keep to the precise rules of the parking sign. This story is littered with examples of the woman being obsessed with obeying rules, and keeping promises.

'I tried not to take this as an omen of what might happen to me if I disobeyed.'

'Here, on the pavement, what if I was too close already? Would a traffic warden that i meant no harm, I was only standing here in a sort of desperate paralysis?'

'Furious with myself for the ridiculous bargain I had made and now had to honour, I had allowed a voice in my head to say, it's not worth it. Then I feared I would be struck down'

This story will stick with me a long time, and when the reasons for this excursion are revealed, I actually shed a tear or two, which is good going for a short story.

Another favourite is 'You Are a Gongedip', which deals with an obsession with language and words and involves a protagonist who makes up his own words for things, but this secret language is used against him with devastating effects. As book lover, his fate is terrifying!

The whole collection was enjoyable, but those are the three stories I would pick out as favourites, and they are the ones I would recommend to anyone looking for individual short stories.

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