A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
On the verge of giving up – anchored to dreams that never came true and to people who have long since disappeared from their lives – Van Booy’s characters walk the streets of these stark and beautiful stories until chance meetings with strangers force them to face responsibility for lives they thought had continued on without them.
Yes, well, the blurb is certainly one long and strangulated sentence, but don’t let that put you off as this collection of short stories is frankly one of the best I’ve ever read. Though not of course without its faults. And, pleasingly, it’s all of a piece – as it seems that a large number of short story collections these days are let down by the inclusion of seriously sub-standard work or work that doesn’t fit the tone of the collection itself. This book avoids that trap with great style and skill.
The title story, Love Begins in Winter, is a tour de force of humanity and succinctness. Telling the story of a very talented cellist who discovers love in an unexpected place, it weaves its way through the narrative with all the artistry of the music he plays. This, I believe, was my favourite of the five offerings here. The beginning is simply delicious:
I wait in the shadows. My cello is already on stage. It was carved in 1723 on a Sicilian hillside where the sea is very quiet.
What could be more perfect? I was utterly absorbed in the story from that point and Van Booy kept me there until the very end. I enjoyed the way the cellist, Bruno, plays whilst remembering his past, and the mysteries it holds. It somehow links the music and the story very closely together. I might have preferred keeping to Bruno’s point of view throughout – and perhaps that would have been even stronger – but we are also given some of the story by Hannah, the woman he meets. Her past is far more dramatic, especially when the fate of her brother is revealed, and this provides a strong counterpoint to the quiet lyricism of Bruno’s world. The two characters and their tales blend well together.
Van Booy also has a pleasing knack of taking the small specifics of people’s lives and letting them reveal a deeper truth. Here’s Hannah describing her first meeting with Bruno:
From my pocket I took a large stone and set it squarely in his open hand. If there is such a thing as marriage, it takes place long before the ceremony.
The ending of this story is both full of human joy and essentially quiet – a kind of harmony which I found immensely satisfying. And very moreish.
In Tiger, Tiger we are given the history of a woman who slowly becomes obsessed with the work of a dead paediatrician. It’s gripping stuff, but I do think we lose impetus during the sections where the supposed work itself is quoted. These took me out of the story and the focus on our main character, and the tale would have been better off and more pointed without them. It’s probably the weakest offering here, but still interesting. The main character is really quite strange:
I reach for Brian’s arm. I dip my head and bite into it. I feel my teeth clamp his warm flesh. He shouts, then screams when I won’t let go.
Yes, I admit this act does make sense in the context of the character’s psychological history but, frankly, I’ve had better dates.
The Missing Statues is a delightful description of a young boy’s confusion at the tragedy suffered by his mother, and also a contrast to the life of the grown man now. I loved the framework with the conversation between the man and a passing priest at the start and also the return to them at the end. Here’s the priest who’s taken time out of his meetings schedule to sit with the unhappy young man:
The meeting would be well under way. He considered the idea that he was always where he was supposed to be, even when he wasn’t.
Yes indeed, we’ve all been there – and it’s a succinct and stylish way of saying that we are never truly in charge of our own daily plans. Anything may happen at any time which demands our compassion more fully. In some ways, the beginning and end, with the two strangers talking, were the most powerful sections and I would have liked to remain there for longer – much longer. But then we would miss the offbeat and rather magical middle with the boy and his mother. Still, it vied hard to be my joint favourite, and is a very close second.
In The Coming and Going of Strangers, we start off simply enough, with young Walter falling in love with a girl holidaying in the village, but then the story opens out into a memory of his father’s bravery, and then fast-forwards to later on in Walter’s life, from his wife’s point of view. It’s very measured and very clever, and I loved it. Reader expectations are confounded at every turn – though I must admit I thought young Walter’s feelings for his new love were expressed in far too overwrought and adult terms. Teenage boys don’t think like this:
Walter declared in his thoughts that his virginity was spiritual and that he had already lost it to someone he was yet to meet. The physical act, should it ever occur, would be nothing more than blind and fumbling reassurance that man’s mortality could be celebrated with the division of spirit through flesh.
Eh?? I wonder if the editor was asleep at that point. It’s a shame, as this writer is seriously good, and that passage was crying out to be cut. However, honour was restored by the deliciously powerful ending which took my breath away. What a relief.
In The City of Windy Trees, we find George, a very lonely man who suddenly discovers that he has a young daughter he never knew about. It focuses on the same themes of solitariness and quiet love that are found in the title story, and the growing crescendo of hope and the promise of fulfilment are beautifully and subtly portrayed. I really enjoyed George – from the kitchen crisis when he breaks the china accidentally whilst reading his daughter’s letter, through the comic and inspirational dash to the airport, and to the startling first meeting at the zoo, he’s a delight. Off-kilter, odd, yes, but with huge amounts of charm also:
George thought the man next to him was asleep, but then he reached up and touched his moustache, as if to check that George hadn’t stolen it.
Fabulous. Besides, anyone who can list his ten top interests and include in it velvet loafers, Bowie songs and a Snoopy collection gets my vote. I’d happily read a whole novel about George.
How then can I end this review? These stories are stories of hope and humanity, even against the odds. They’re deeply satisfying, and with a very strong musicality that’s a delight to read. Really, Van Booy reminds me very much of Murakami, but more westernised. And oh so very exciting. I’ll definitely be looking for more from this author.
Love begins in winter, Beautiful Books 2009, ISBN: 978 1 905636 49 5
[Anne is pleased to make another short story writer discovery. To find out more about her own rather eclectic mix of short stories, please click here.]