Stories from Other Places takes the reader round the world in time and in place; except that the short stories are fiction they are so redolent of place that this could almost be classified as travel writing. Short stories are a unique skill and not universally appreciated; even the master of them, Alice Munro, can miss her mark and many readers find them ultimately unsatisfactory. I would never choose to read a volume of short stories and am often disappointed when a favourite writer brings out a volume rather than a new novel. My antithesis to the short story form is to my detriment; it is unquestioningly a purer and cleverer form of fiction than novel writing, closer to poetry on the creative writing spectrum.
In Shakespeare’s volume there was only one story, Freshwater Fishing, which I felt confirmed my view of short form fiction. The rest of the stories were mesmerising and transported the reader.
The opening piece, Oddfellows, is more novella than short story and is a piece of ‘faction’. Shakespeare brings to life the only act of war perpetrated on Australian soil in WW1, when in 1915 an annual town picnic at Broken Hill was attacked by two immigrant Afghanis. It goes without saying that Shakespeare’s account is beautifully written, but it also brings to life his imagined characters caught up in the attack and highlights the internal and external conflicts. It is a coming of age story for Rosalind. All her expectations and hopes for life are about to be met as she waits to be proposed to by an eligible young man at a time when young men of any sort are scarce. But driven by curiosity she explores Ghantown, the immigrant Muslim encampment on the outskirts of the town. And a friendship, that could be something else, with an Afghan ice cream seller. Unsurprisingly this tenuous connection ends in tragedy for both of them. Parallels with 21st century Britain are there but never laboured.
The White Hole of Bombay is a story of heat, lassitude and disappointment. Again the disappointment is general and specific as the Raj types struggle on with post-Independence India and the disappearance of life as they knew it. Keener is the disappointment, both spoken and hidden for years, felt in a spouse. The language and powers of description are glorious; these characters speak with “needlepoint English accent(s)”.
The Princess of the Pampas is a bitter sweet story, where the characters are designed for tragedy, against the background of the magically conjured up Argentinian landscape.
The Death of Marat equates the feelings and expectations of a white, dispossessed, Zimbabwean widow to Charlotte Corday. Shakespeare’s account of Marat’s assassination interweaves faction and fiction to tell how an unexceptional person can be put to such extremes by the state that they will act totally out of character to take desperate action.
The Statue tells the story of an egotistical Bolivian general sourcing a magnificent representation of him for the town square. The story, both style and content, are reminiscent of South American magic realism.
As a British winter approaches I would recommend this collection short story for the landscape, light and heat it offers.
Stories from Other Places by Nicholas Shakespeare
9781846559747|Harvill Secker hbk Sept 2015
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