Monday 6 April 2015

Recommendation: Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall’s 2014 collection Gifts For The One Who Comes After was one of the most perfect sets of short stories I’ve read; so much so that I felt some trepidation coming to her earlier book Hair Side, Flesh Side. Could it possibly be as good?

The short answer is yes; hell yes. Hair Side, Flesh Side is packed full of stories displaying the same sense of strangeness, charm, linguistic dexterity and emotional depth that so impressed me in Gifts… There’s some resemblances to Kelly Link or Robert Shearman’s style (Shearman wrote the introduction) but Marshall’s unique voice is clear from the first paragraph onwards. In part, this might stem from the fact that Marshall’s academic background is used as inspiration for her stories, but transformed into plots no one else could ever think of. A case in point being the first story, Blessed, which is built around the medieval practice of the sale of body parts supposedly taken from the remains of saints and martyrs. But Blessed is set in the modern world, and such gifts are given to little girls, causing jealousy in the schoolyard and competitiveness between divorced parents… Similarly the second story, Sanditon is based around the discovery of the remainder of Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel. But you’ll never guess how it is discovered or indeed, where it is being written…

The stories are full of the past intruding into the present, whether it’s the ghosts of old poets in Dead White Men, the fear of old wars and how to protect against them in The Mouth, Open or simply the ex-wife ruining a supposedly romantic break to the Paris and its catacombs in The Old And The New. Marshall’s work is full of sinister and potentially gruesome details, such as the living statues of Holding Pattern or the doppelgängers both repulsive and attractive in Lines Of Affection, but such ideas and imagery are always deployed for maximum metaphoric and emotional effect. These are stories as moving as they are weird.

It’s customary to end a piece such as this with a few words about the reviewer’s favourites from the collection, but god help me I’m struggling to pick just a two or three at the moment. I’ll have to for my Short Stories Of 2015 post (three stories from Gifts… made my 2014 list, itself an indicator of just how good Marshall is). As a showcase for her talent, all the stories in Hair Side, Flesh Side are simply undeniable. Seek this one out at the first opportunity.

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