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.
I like to add a blurb at the beginning of my review but, irritatingly, there wasn’t one on the book which only listed the author’s biography and one or two reviews. Neither did a quick visit to Amazon give me any clues. In the end I had to visit the publisher’s website which told me the following: these are poignant stories of love, betrayal, dreams and tribulation, corruption and redemption. Whether we’re reading about the Hong Kong girl who reconciles with her estranged father following a chance encounter with an African musician, or the hangman whose life is torn apart by demons from the past, these stories take the reader on a journey that is as emotional as it is culturally rich.
The central theme of this book is one of displacement, and I certainly did feel very displaced whilst I was reading it. This reaction may be entirely what the author expects, but it resulted in a curious distancing from the characters and events, which I found rather disconcerting. My lack of “engagement” (to use a hackneyed business phrase – sorry …) with the text certainly mirrored that experienced by the narrators to great effect, but it does make it difficult to write a review.
The fault is no doubt mine.
The stories themselves are written well and possess strong plots. I think one of my issues was I found it difficult to distinguish one character’s voice from that of the next and the next. And so on, until it became almost impossible to remember anything I’d been reading half an hour after reading it, or indeed whose story it related to. Another obstacle I needed to come to terms with was that the context of these scenes was so very different from anything I’m familiar with that it became extremely tricky as a reader to find my way into the situations conveyed.
In such circumstances, it’s my belief that the humanity of the characters should be distinctive enough to grab any reader even without prior knowledge or understanding of the setting or the culture, and I’m not convinced it does so here. Somehow, the humanity is too much hidden in the shadows of the particular circumstances and I couldn’t get hold of it or use it. If you see what I mean.
So a mixed bag and a mixed reaction really. Some stories however did manage to make their way to the top of my consciousness. I very much liked the richness of “The Smell of Fresh Grass” and the edgy relationship between the main character and her family. And the ending, where less is more, is very good indeed. Edginess is also evident between the main character and his mistress in “A Glimpse of Life”, where the poignancy of the final few paragraphs was particularly moving.
That said, the endings of several of the later stories in this collection tended to be disappointing, being let down by their final few paragraphs, which was frustrating, to say the least. A case in point for me was “Private Lessons” and also “London Slaves”, both of which were interesting slice-of-life stories but their endings were simply odd. Though if the latter had ended a half-page earlier, it would have been far better.
I also felt irritated by the final pages of “Black Silk Stockings”, which I must admit I didn’t fully understand as I wasn’t entirely sure which woman it was meant to be. Though either would have been a surprise, under the circumstances. However, in that particular story, I was utterly delighted by the wonderful silent dancing scene, so perhaps any ending wouldn’t have been able to live up to this tour de force…
As an aside, it seems to me that in many ways, endings and beginnings of short stories are so much more important, and have to do so much more work, than in their longer, more laid-back cousins, the novel. So it was a shame that the overall quality of that first story didn’t entirely translate to the rest of the book, though there are regular and definite glimmers of glory which some of you may enjoy experiencing.
Finally you’ll certainly not find a great deal of hope here, a content decision which makes Kamoche an interesting writer, but also a rather discomforting one.
A Fragile Hope, Salt Publishing 2007, ISBN 978 1 84471 320 2
[Anne is a keen supporter of the short story form and often writes them herself, usually in the literary or gay erotic genres, although she also occasionally writes biblical and comic fiction. She realises that sometimes it’s okay to be puzzled, but she doesn’t have to enjoy it.]