Science fiction and fantasy

Hair Side, Flesh Side cover

The Secret Eater

Hair Side, Flesh Side

by Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall's collection of weird stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side, certainly lives up to that description. Each short story is given a body part, and although this is often only loosely related to the narrative it does underline the visceral, fleshy nature of her writing.

The first story, Blessed, is quite characteristic in several ways. It features Chloe, a young girl whose divorced parents are competing with each other to buy her the best presents. But little girls in her class aren't interested in gadgets or ponies, instead they want saints and martyrs. It's quite a dark story about the relationship between love and pain, which I thought ended well. And by well I mean it had a pleasing logic and a hard-hitting conclusion, and not that it wasn't horrible.

Sanditon continues in this visceral style with the story of a poor editor who discovers she has something significant written on the inside of her skin. It's one of those stories that takes a while to sink in, but as a metaphor for the publishing and writing life it's very apt. There's poverty, exploitation, loneliness, and the sense of having a calling rather than making a choice, and these things all ring true.

The theme of the written word continues in A Texture Like Velvet, which deals with ancient texts and researchers during wartime. There's more writing in The Book of Judgement, this time looking at the life of a classic writer from the point of view of an angel. That story has a nice twist. And then there's Dead White Men, in which a young man feels aggrieved because his girlfriend seems more interested in deceased writers than in him.

As well as literature there's also quite a bit of history, such as in The Old And The New, which is based in the Parisian catacombs. And once again envy of the dead is a theme.

Some of the stories made good sense to me, but with others I couldn't work out what the author was getting at. I found Pieces of Broken Things to be odd and inconclusive. This is a very literal kind of fantasy, in which a wife rejects all of the inconvenience of love, and replaces her heart with a clock. I found myself similarly confused by The Art Of Dying, This Feeling of Flying, and The Mouth, Open, all of which finish somewhat under-explained. But I was most baffled by Lines of Affection, about a girl who is creeped out by her parents' new lovers. It seems to be about child abuse, but I couldn't work out whether there was supposed to be just one villain, or more.

No Ghosts In London and Eternal Things both add a sad and slightly sweet touch to the stories. However, I found many of the characters' voices were a little too similar. So what may have worked very well for individual tales became less effective when they were read as a collection. On the other hand, the ideas and scenarios are intensely vivid and inventive. This is an unusual collection that mixes gory visuals and academic themes, and I think most of the stories will repay careful re-reading.

11th June 2013

3 star rating

Review ©

Book Details

Year of release: 2012

Categories: Books

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