Science fiction and fantasy
by David Rix
Yellow Eyes introduces a young Feather. She's been brought up by a dingy old hippie artist who doesn't want to let her out into town because of his irrational fear of being tracked by what he calls the Measuring Men. He's an abusive nutter addled by too many magic mushrooms, and Feather wants to get away from him, even if it means roughing it near a disused nuclear power plant or leaving to explore a world she has no experience of.
The author has a very visual and engaging prose style that drew me right in. A lot of the settings are quite bleak: isolated beaches, concrete jungle cityscapes, the loneliness of Dartmoor, or half-empty halls of residence occupied by dirty, impoverished art students, for instance. There's a touch of melancholy about these places, yet the descriptions of them are vivid and realistic so there isn't an off-putting atmosphere of gloom. Instead there's always the feeling that something interesting is about to happen on the next page.
The stories are set in a very believable present, mostly in Britain apart from The Whispering Girl which is in Slovenia. They're connected by a subtle edge of supernatural horror though, but it's not always the central focus of the stories, and even when it does take centre stage the shock isn't due to the characters realising that something weird is going on, it's in their bemused attempts to make sense of their everyday lives.
In Touch Wood a group of people are drinking in Camden to commiserate Mark, who has a broken heart. Mark is offered a potent and mysterious drink with the supposed ability to grant wishes. This story is more hallucinatory and confusing than your usual be-careful-what-you-wish-for moral tale, rather like the effect of taking something intoxicating.
In Magpies this sense of confusion increases, with a tale of a musician who is grieving her brother. She has lost her inspiration and spends a lot of time searching for patterns in the wild. The reader can sympathise, because it's not all that clear what the underlying pattern behind these stories is at this point. The Book of Tides continues this theme with a man who collects driftwood and debris from the tides and concocts increasingly incredible theories about the stories behind what he has found. His project parallels Feather's search for meaning that she begun at the start of Yellow Eyes. But these stories portray the world as largely unknowable. Meaning seems elusive and perhaps even impossible to find, and it's certainly futile to search for it. It's almost like reading anti-stories. I found this interesting and frustrating in equal measure. Because what is fiction for if not to help us make sense of an irreducibly complex world? Of course we know that life can't be broken down to a few simple themes and moral lessons, but doing exactly that is part of the charm of stories. But most of the tales in Feather left me violently bewildered, and I think this denial of the meaning behind stories is part of the point. To Call The Sea and The Whispering Girl are even more strange and inscrutable than the other tales.
In To Call The Sea a student discovers a waxed-up flute that he unblocks and plays. This leads to nightmares, guilt, a story of jealous and obsession, and other peculiar goings-on. The Whispering Girl is more graphic. It centres around a man living in Ljubljana who is preoccupied with reflections, starting with the near-identical tower block he lives opposite. This seems to be partly because he doesn't seem to have anything else to do, such as a job. He's shadowed by Claire, who may well be a ghost of a lover, but what isn't clear is who else in this story is still alive. He keeps bumping into strange ragged women and eerie grey cats, and the story keeps resetting itself.
Feather is a mind-boggle. I can't decide whether David Rix is being really smart or just annoying when he plays with the concept of the search for understanding. However it's an entertaining kind of boggling, and I warmed to the character of Feather with her scarred innocence and cheerful practicality, whilst the stories themselves are colourful, strange and surprising.
21st November 2011
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