Robert Shearman returns with the follow-up to his British Fantasy Award-winning collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and once again, he’s put together a superb volume of stories. As before, he’s adept at combining the outlandishly fantastical with the minutiae of everyday life and relationships; but, whereas the main theme of his previous collection was love, here Shearman is broadly concerned with the relationship between individuals and the grand sweep of history.
Separating the main stories is a chart of dates, a “history of mediocrity, and futility, and human error”, to quote its unnamed compiler in one of his asides. The reasons behind this chronicle’s existence are revealed only gradually, as Shearman depicts a man who has been burnt by life, found that even the history he loved as a child now seems hollow, and he and his family have paid a heavy price. For this narrator, history has become nothing but “memories [and] interpretations”; a similar view is expressed by the protagonist of ‘A History of Broken Things’, who intersperses recollections of his past with reflections on his mother’s decline from dementia, whether history is nothing but our memories, and what that means if we forget or are forgotten.
One could take from this the view that individuals are insignificant in the face of history and loss, but that’s not the impression I gain from Everyone’s Just So So Special – at least, not entirely. It seems to me that individuals are central to many of these stories, even in some cases warping reality around themselves. For example, ‘Coming in to Land’ is presented as a flight attendant’s address to her passengers, insisting that they have to believe in Paris for it to be there when they land’; but it’s clear by story’s end that this is all about the attendant and her ex-lover. In ‘This Far, and No Further’, time literally stops from the strength of Polly’s desire to find her missing daughter – but there are a number of perceptual shifts which poignantly reveal her true state of mind.
Several other pieces in the collection also use a strange situation to illuminate character traits. The story ‘Dirt’ is a particularly striking example: Duncan Brown is a university lecturer having an affair with a student from another faculty, who calls herself Natasha and is obsessed with Russia (or her mental image of the place), and even keeps a bag of Russian soil under her pillow. Natasha’s fascination comes across as the rather eccentric fad of a teenager still shaping her own identity; it only takes the innocent action ofDuncansending her a postcard fromRussiato undermine what the country represents to her. But a neat narrative move at the end gives cause to question whether it’s Natasha or Duncan who has the more tenuous hold on reality.
One of the hallmarks of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical for me was the way that Shearman often used the fantastic to facilitate equally satisfying literal and metaphorical readings of his stories. We can see a similar approach in some of the tales in the current volume. ‘Inkblots’, for example, quickly skates over the implausibility of there being such a thing as a “hospital tattooist” to produce a poignant reflection on declaring one’s feelings when they might change. Sam’s father and terminally-ill mother decide it’s time to get tattoos of each other’s names, and would like Sam to have one with both of their names; but he’s not keen on the permanence of a tattoo. Then Sam’s mother doesn’t die after all, and his parents drift apart; Shearman explores the ramifications of such a development in a situation where a tattoo effectively represents a declaration of undying love. In tandem with this, we see Sam’s own unease with the idea of love and commitment, represented by his squeamishness around tattoos.
However, it seems to me that the richest stories in Everyone’s Just So So Special go beyond straightforwardly metaphorical readings, into the deeper heart of fantasy. The protagonist of ‘Times Table’ literally sheds her skin with each new birthday, but the remains hang around as living puppets. The story portrays the protagonist at various stages in her life, from the fourteen-year-old girl taking her teenage insecurities out on the younger self who wasn’t the girl she now wishes she could have been; to the old, old woman surrounded by the ghosts of her past. To an extent, ‘Times Table’ is about who we are as people, and the changing nature of self; but the sheer range that it encompasses makes the story greater than the sum of its parts.
In ‘Restoration’, a figure known only as “the Curator” has conquered the universe, and each year of history is now a mural in his vast gallery. Andy gets a job at the gallery, and is particularly taken with both 1574 and his boss, Miriam – that’s the name she takes, anyway; she’s forgotten her own. And Miriam is not the forgetful one, as Andy too sometimes finds her slipping from his memory; but a new directive from the Curator forces the two of them to take drastic action. ‘Restoration’ is a slice of beautiful strangeness that works by remaining focused on the characters at its heart; even when the world we know has been utterly swept away, we can recognise the people.
So who actually is special, in the face of all that was, is, or might be? Perhaps the story ‘Acronyms’ offers a clue in its portraits of interlocking (though separate) lives, beginning with a café-owner who makes the finest BLT sandwich and heading towards an outlandish tale of spying. Everyone is special in their own stories, but those stories may be only tangential to each other. Shearman’s collection, however, certainly is special.
(This review also appears in issue 269 of Vector.)