Brother, what strange place is this?
A jewel! 22 Aug 2004 by bama5097962
This much is clear: Tom Saunders loves his characters. In this compelling collection of stories, he takes you deep within each of his odd and multifaceted creations and steeps you like a tea bag in the warm juices of their essence so that as they come to life on the page, you are certain you have know them from their very births. You understand (without understanding the source of your knowledge) their motives, their fears, their weaknesses, the things that make them tick, that make them human. Saunders takes this diverse zoo of quirkiness, passion and humanity, and hurls it headlong at life, sowing in the process, an amazing assortment of stories, all grown organically from the characters he has so painstakingly crafted. These tales will delight you; they will make you laugh, make you cry, make you hurt, make you feel. They will reveal to you, in sumptuous and delicious prose, the whole spectrum of human emotion in all its relentless intensity. And they teach (obliquely and without being pedantic) something significant and reassuring about the human condition.
Hard to pick favorites from this wonderful collection, but “The Seal Man,” a story of two very different sorts of outcasts finding human companionship in a world where the deck is stacked against them, is surely one of the best. So is the title story, a heartbreaking tale of brotherly love set against the backdrops of changing times and mental illness. And if “Aunt Frank’s Legacy” doesn't absolutely delight your heart, then you are indeed a tough oyster to shuck. This is a terrific collection of short fiction from a gifted and able writer. Don't miss it.
Elegant and elegiac. 24 Dec 2004 by Kay Sexton (Brighton UK)
Tom Saunders writes of a world deeper than the one we inhabit day to day, but which we all dip into at the lowest moments of our lives, or rise to at the peaks of our personal existence. Above all, he lays bare the kind of experience we’ve all had, but prefer to pretend hasn't happened - the moments when the world skews, showing us the underlying bones of myth and madness in human society. From a brutal fishing community which destroys a man without even really trying, to a modern world where brothers are broken physically and mentally by simple reality, this book reveals how lives can be charted with a lyricism that is also brutally thought-provoking.
Pure Genius, 28 Dec 2004 by Robin Slick "author and editor" (Philadelphia, PA, USA)
Tom Saunders' debut short story collection took my breath away. These are timeless classics -- quirky, colorful, and incredibly intelligent. Each story stands alone as a perfect little gem; they are a rare treat for the reader who not only likes to be entertained but for the reader who likes to be challenged as well. Think Raymond Carver; think Barry Hannah; think Tobias Wolff and maybe, just maybe, you'll get an idea of the genius of Tom Saunders. There are tinges of subtle humor throughout certain pieces, bittersweet reflections in others..just an amazing, amazing read. Brother, What Strange Place is This is akin to discovering a wonderful hidden treasure...a treasure to be shared and savored.
Wonderful stories, superbly written. 29 May 2005 by Tania Casselle
Two months after reading this collection, many of the stories are still vivid in my mind. I feel like I've stumbled across a modern classic, with fresh storylines, strong characters, and original language.
My favorites include "Aunt Frank's Legacy," "Remember Us," "The Seal Man," and "Nave Nave Mahana," but to be honest it's hard to pick any one story out. It's rare to read a book of short fiction where the standard stays so high throughout, but the diversity and richness of this bunch of stories kept me hooked. I read some to my husband as we drove cross-country, and he loved them too.
Saunders is a bold stylist, not afraid of examining both the dark and the tender sides of life. The mood is sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes hauntingly scary. He shows good insight into the ridiculous aspect of human nature and doesn't hesitate to point that up. In some stories I snorted out loud at the witty observations, in others I was scared for what would happen next. Often I was just deeply moved.
I'm looking forward to re-reading soon, and for anyone who enjoys entertaining and literary short fiction, I'd say that Brother is a no-brainer.
Exquisite stories. 26 Nov 2004 by Kathryn Koromilas
It seems as if Tom Saunders has tuned into the deep dark secrets of our world, of happiness and sadness, and has articulated them in the stories collected in Brother, what strange place is this?
The title story with the brother Griffin jumping out of a window only to survive and end up in an institution for the insane addresses the title question in a emotional and philosophical way, but really, all the stories in this collection are studies of the same question.
“Aerobatics” is the one that most got to me, the one I can't forget: A father tells his daughter about the time, when he was a boy, that he came home from school to see to his mother crying, “breaking her heart”. He explains that up until that moment he was happy and then "suddenly I was landed with this knowledge about my mother...I wasn't prepared for what I saw...I wasn't prepared for a world where that sort of sadness was possible."
You have to be prepared to read this collection. You won’t be, of course. Like the little boy who is suddenly faced with the shock of his mother in tears, one can never be prepared to face the depth of the world's sadness (for the boy) or strangeness (for the brother, Griffin).
Yes, I recommend this collection of stories. Tom Saunders is a sensitive and intelligent writer who is concerned with the truth of the human condition.
A style of his own. 22 Aug 2004 by Robert W Arter (California)
After decades of minimalism, modernism, and postmodernism, and batty maunderings, Saunders' careful, credible storytelling is as an oasis to the parched mind. My own personal favorite in this varied collection, “The Calle de Obra Pia,” will sit you down on a piano bench next to a man who is hopelessly in love. You may like him--and this is true of all of Saunders’ characters--or you may not, but I tell you that you will care about him, you will know him, you will very likely find in him yourself.
And this is the truth that infects Saunders' stories, and draws the reader into them: he does not write about Everyman; instead, he continues to show us variations on the species. None is wholly good nor entirely sympathetic. Each is as imperfect, as yearning, and as capable of greatness in small spaces as are you, as am I.
This collection is clean air. Do yourself a favor.
A wonderful collection of stories. 20 Aug 2004 by Stephen Bennett (Oxford, UK)
Tom Saunders has written a compelling collection. These stories span a variety of locations and time periods but they all demonstrate the author’s simple but often beautiful prose. His characters are fully rounded human creations, complex and real, and Saunders’ writing draws you in to their situations and surroundings. Funny, intriguing and moving, these stories are the work of a writer confident with his craft who doesn’t feel the need to show off and allows his tales unfold at their own pace. A great collection that everyone should read.
A Compelling Exploration. 16 Aug 2004 by Ed Touchette (Gloucester, MA, USA)
Tom Saunders’ collection is the work of a true artist. His writing leads you through a range of human interaction and emotion. Without pretense or presumption he offers the reader the opportunity to explore and conclude. A true gift Brother, What Strange Place Is This? is a remarkable collection by a remarkable writer.
Excellent!! 11 Aug 2004 by Mary McCluskey (UK)
An amazing debut. These stories are beautifully written, brilliantly executed. Plus – within these very varied stories, a cast of memorable characters.
Tom Saunders is not afraid to look into the darker recesses of the human heart, to study the more complex relationships, to face tough questions head on, but his stories are imbued with a keen intelligence and shot through with humour and compassion.
Some personal favourites: “The Seal Man” - an amazing feat of the imagination; “A House, A Tree, A Stream” - a subtle story, it will linger long after the book is closed; “The Calle de Obra Pia” - a sensitive story of love and loss. Read all of these stories, none of them will disappoint.
Tom Saunders is a real literary talent. This collection is a treat for anyone who loves good writing, good storytelling. Don't miss it.
Compelling. 10 Aug 2004 by A Customer
This collection of stories represents the work of a remarkable writer. Tom Saunders’ skill and craftsmanship will carry you from beginning to end in uncommon and very satisfying fashion. He invites you in and offers up the whole of the experience without pretense. His economy is the work of a true artist-a gift to the reader. An opportunity to explore.
Best short anthology in last five years. 23 Jun 2004 by Webb Johnson (California)
Tom Saunders is my new favorite short story writer. Brother, What Strange Place is This? could be an anthology of the best English Language Short Stories of 2004. Remarkable that they were all written by one author.
Brothers and sisters, what fine work this is! 11 Aug 2004 by Carrie Berry (Scotland)
I had read a couple of Tom Saunders stories in online journals, so I came to this collection expecting quality. Not disappointed, I was completely impressed by his ability to explore a broad range of possibilities in a variety of sincere and believable voices. There is nothing lazy about Tom's approach to writing and nothing mediocre about his results. This is one of those books you want to slow down reading so the experience doesn’t end too soon.
Fantastic, eclectic collection. 10 Aug 2004 by Susan D
British author Tom Saunders’ debut collection of short stories, Brother, What Strange Place is This is a glorious success. Multi-layered and eclectic, the work showcases the literary talents and broad imagination of its creator. Saunders breathes life into a multitude of styles, characters, and settings, weaving strings of charming wit, gorgeous description, interesting plots, and heartfelt pathos into this gorgeously crafted tapestry.
From the title story, turn of the century brothers, one a talented pianist relegated to a mental institution and the other desperately trying to reach and understand him, to a modern-day father coming to grips with daughter's independence, he never fails to strike a unique and human chord. The language and phrasings are thick and lush, nearly an embarrassment of delightful, dizzying prose. Saunders has a keen knack for plucking unusual, but perfectly suited, words to highlight and accompany the themes and voices and tones of the pieces. His styles and subjects have a diversity and range. He plays with the clever and cheeky, such as in “Not For What You Are”, which tells the story of a baker who believes he is the reincarnation of painter Dante Gabriel. And he doesn't shy from the tragic, such as in “The Seal Man” - the story of a man shipwrecked on a small island with brutal people. He takes a leap inside an abandoned zoo in “Nave Nave Mahana”, where the homeless congregate and make shelter for themselves while finding hope in a stray monkey.
This is a captivating read, where the stories are fresh and engrossing, unpredictable, sometimes disturbing, and all of them are rendered with precision and a finely-tuned wordsmith’s care.
Emotional Depth, Memorable Characters. 8 Dec 2004 by Lydia Theys (Woodbridge, CT USA)
This is a collection of incredibly varied short stories with one thing in common: the characters are quirky and often inhabit unusual worlds, yet I almost always recognized something of myself in them.
Mr Saunders does a beautiful job of setting the mood and of drawing the reader into it. There is a sense of quiet introspection about the stories that will leave you thinking that for a few brief moments, you got to know these people, and that you are happy you did. You won't find any convenient plot turns, melodramatic coincidences or neat-and-easy endings. Just a collection of stories about people and about big and small moments in their lives, all of which seem to matter.
I would love to see a novel from Mr Saunders and judging from the quality of the writing in these stories, I think we will.
Superb Collection! 25 Feb 2005 by Katrina Denza (NC, USA)
In the title story, successful composer Griffin Curzon attempts suicide and his inventor brother tries to resurrect him from his rapid mental decline to the man he once was. In the heart of his illness, Griffin writes in a letter to his brother this apt metaphor for life:
We see merit in numbers, in sequences. We search for the infinite in variety. We are imbeciles. Every note of music is a whole, deep symphony of sound. Play it soft, than softer still, breath on it, then strike it hard, harder, hit it so it rings on and on, the texture wavering and changing. Then add rhythm, slow, slower, a little bit faster, build it up, rat-ta-tat. There is staccato, legato, on and on and on. One note, one beautiful, indivisible note.
In "Aerobatics," a father must face the inevitable changes in his relationship with his adult daughter, and in "The Seal Man," a lonely woman sees hope for herself in the arrival of a stranger to her island. The characters in these pages don't just make do, they transcend their circumstances. And the reader will find a variety of people here: transients who move into an abandoned zoo; an eccentric patron of the arts; a man coming back to his grandmother's house after her death; an infirm man bracing himself for death.
From "Sweet Mercy Leads Me On:"
Now I'm lying awake trying to think of when I was at my happiest. Because of the drugs I've been given it's difficult to focus on anything but the present. My thoughts zigzag back and forth like a dog let loose in a park, picking up a scent only to discard it when a better one comes along.
Intelligent and sophisticated, these stories showcase Saunders' ability to render imaginative lives and settings in exquisite detail. Each story in the collection is a unique and lively world, yet each carries the mark of a sure hand, and the cohesive glue that binds them together is Saunders' understated brilliance and compassion for his characters.
If you have not already done so, I suggest you purchase a copy of this superb collection. You'll be glad you did.
Brother, What Strange Place is This? - Tom Saunders
from Dr Ian Hocking
British author Tom Saunders was once an engineer, a school caretaker, a musician, a seller of guitars and records, and, not insignificantly, a graduate of the UEA's Creative Writing programme under Sir Malcolm Bradbury. From these experiences and with this pedigree comes the eclectic Brother, What Strange Place is This?, his debut collection of short fiction.
This book is a kaleidoscope with tumbling pieces as diverse as a shipwrecked Spaniard, a philosopher, and a vagrant. For the most part, a Saunders character finds himself coping as a stranger in a foreign land, if not physically - a trussed Africa-based reporter awaiting execution in 'Head' - then spiritually - a father belittled by his family in 'Aerobatics'. The rich backcloths of Havana, Vienna, and Germany turn up the volume on these unbalanced, often exiled characters, as though Saunders, twisting the kaleidoscope, is not satisfied with their intrinsic alienation.
One is tempted to view Saunders as a musician first and a writer second because the stories sing like fine crystal. This is not to say that a given tale lacks development, or character, or plot. 'The Prospect of Home', for example, is a wonderful piece that sees two young men, Gabriel and Francis, embark upon a mission to 'disappear' a political dissident of their mutual acquaintance. The story is electrically charged and the characters real: two unwilling, yet complicit murderers, without whom the dictatorships and informer-led societies would collapse into peace. And yet the most powerful element of this story is the music that plays beneath it.
Though there are no poetic pieces in this collection, the reader will observe that Saunders cannot let his stories go undernourished in poetic terms. A horse does not merely whinny, it 'rolls the yellow of an eye and bares its teeth in the style of a bad Hamlet' . A town is not just economically depressed, rather 'The big brass band of the easy buck had packed up and left forty years ago'. This is dense writing. At its best, he brings a pitch-perfect clarity to his thoughts, and thus to his readers'. But the writing is occasionally inscrutable. My perplexity at 'Not For What You Are', the somewhat turgid confession of a man who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, is doubtless a combination of the high-octane prose and my ignorance of this figure (Google now informs me he was a Pre-Raphaelite painter). Indeed, Saunders will often demand a certain intelligence and world-weariness on the part of the reader in order that the unwritten part of his stories (sometimes the greater part) find its home. On occasion - such as the brief 'Sweetwater Gas and Unicorn' - the reader is left with a sense of frustration that a beautiful something has come and gone in an instant, whetting one's appetite without the follow-up of a good feed.
The title story, 'Brother…', describes the slow death of a composer, Griffin Curzon, who in 1913 attempts a suicide, survives, and is interned in a sanatorium. We bear witness to Griffin's physical and metaphorical descent through the eyes of his brother, an inventor called Alaric. Alaric receives the occasional letter from his Griffin, one of which reads:
Brother, What strange place is this? My keepers carried me here like a Samson in chains. A great man graced my room today and peered hard into my face as if he aspired to read in it some prophecy.
One is tempted to conclude that Saunders has adopted the role of this damaged composer as he writes his cryptic messages - all twenty-one of them - and slips them out under the door of the writer's world to that of his reader. This analogy soon breaks, of course, because Saunders has not been driven mad by his inspection of the world. Saunders's head is clear. Perhaps, then, Saunders is the man who graces the rooms of his characters, aspiring to read some prophecy, a stenographer to people in faraway places.
Either way, this fine collection should prove thought-provoking and sad, musical and enervating. A kaleidoscope of lives, twisted but bright, and a worthy debut.
[Editor's note: Tom Saunders and Dr Ian Hocking are both published by the UKA Press]
Roof Whirl Away
For the lover of the short story. 21 Oct 2008
by “constant reader” (Hastings on Hudson, NY, US)
I'm a fan of the short story. Written a few myself. So as a reader, I appreciate the form, and like to sink my teeth into a collection as good as the latest from Tom Saunders, Roof Whirl Away, which follows his 2004 debut collection Brother, What Strange Place is This?
26 stories in all, Saunders’s characters are complex, real, flawed, and people you can either relate to, or feel that you know. And if you don't, you'll know them by the end of the tale. Saunders grabs you from the get go and doesn't let go. Here is the opener to the story “Bonny Craigallen,” which leads off the collection:
“I don't do the violence any more. I don't use my fists and I haven't touched a gun since the business with Garner. Anger flows through me nowadays, it doesn't get stoppered-up inside, an acid to burn and scar. It's no longer necessary to what I do. But I can still remember what it was like to be a dangerous man. The authority of it. The pride. The adrenaline. To front up another fledgling hard bastard and know you've gone further, oh so much further than he has.”
Powerful stuff, and a strong voice.
There are many stand out stories in Roof Whirl Away, like the touching “Lasting,” which is loosely based on the life of the 19th century English naturalist and writer Richard Jefferies; or the aging rock star of “Sunburst Guitar,” whose prized Hofner guitar is stolen by a teenage street performer; or the hilarious “Big,” which features adult star La Hooters McDade (Martha to her friends), who just needs a little R&R, some time off from being the larger than life La Hooters McDade.
I tried to pace myself while reading this book, so I could extend the pleasure as long as possible. But that didn’t always work. I'd turn the page and be onto the next story without even realizing it. Roof Whirl Away is one of those books that makes me wish I owned a book store, so I could put it up front and spread the word about it. But I guess I just did! If you are a lover of the short story, do yourself a favor and get yourself a copy.
A Superb Collection of Short Stories. 26 Nov 2008
by Andrew Morton (UK).
It is difficult to do justice to these stories in a brief review, partly because the subject matter is so diverse and partly because Saunders shows dazzling virtuosity in his technique. These are stories that can easily be compared with the best of our generation. This quality of work can only come from a writer who is dedicated to the genre and has taken its exploration beyond conventional limits. But having spoken of the diversity of these twenty six stories, detectable themes unify the collection, especially to do with loyalty and betrayal; for this reason, very different stories, taken together, seem to form some kind of a creative whole. Often we find characters in a disturbed or disturbing psychological state, and here the writer employs the full range of irony to surprise and delight the reader. (They are often very funny.) If this all sounds a little intimidating, the style is reassuringly clear and engaging, somehow harking back to the classic tradition of the short story, so no matter how strange the themes and situations, the reader feels at home in them straight away. Tom Saunders' new collection underlines how unjustly underrated the short story is today in the eyes of publishers. As a lecturer in English and a sometime published writer of short stories, I am full of admiration. You will have to go a long way to find better writing than this.
Stunning Short Story Collection. 29 Nov 2008
by Mark Hubbard (New Zealand)
I read Saunders first short story collection several years ago, and have been waiting avidly for a follow up. I have not been disappointed. If you think that the short story form is not “your thing”, then I dare you to try this: it will change you, just that little bit.
The stories go from the quiet brutality of a killer reformed by art, to the subtleties of love and relationships with a humanity that is rare in writing. Betsy and her night out celebrating her first painting sale will stay with me a long time, remembering her, and the delicately drawn pooch, Basil, with a real fondness, as will “the silly old dad” who was ousted from his own company by a corporate takeover, and as will almost all the others, for the characters that populate these stories stay with you, affect you, even those from the smaller two page pieces. And you won't understand this unless you read it, but there is a lyricism to Saunders’ writing, approaching poetry, but that is elusive and defies my ability to explain it, that also remains with me, long after the details of a story are forgotten. An enormous depth.
Highly recommended. Buy it.
Masterly Collection. 13 Dec 2008
by Christine Bartram (UK)
For a masterclass in the technique and art of the short story, look no further than this collection.
Follow up to Saunders’ Brother What Strange Place is This? (2004) these 26 short stories, often very funny, are loaded with powerful, sometimes dazzling, sometimes haunting imagery. The poetry of Saunders writing impresses. In “Sunburst Guitar” as a well-loved guitar is removed from its velvet-lined case the “blue plush gave up the Hofner with a disapproving sigh, a breath of wax polish and oiled steel.” In “Bonny Craigellan” the killer in prison turns artist, his painting of B Wing from the prison garden his favourite, “Summer grew up all around me....The cellblock wall, with its ash grey stones and steel-barred windows, loomed through a landscape...of rosebushes, of fruit trees. A prediction, I like to think, of the day when nature decides to take the place back, trees punching blue holes in the roof and wild flowers showing bright in the rubble.” Memorable stuff.
The characters won’t leave you in a hurry either. They are mostly recognisable as those we’ve met, or feel we know: the young Betsy, determined to celebrate the sale of her first painting; the well-endowed La Hooters McDade; the fading old man Tilston. Saunders has a real understanding of people “on the edge” whether of society, of a breakdown, a break-up, or on the brink of death itself. The stories are very much their stories and even if you don't feel you know the type of character at the beginning of each story the unique poetic images Saunders uses to describe them will ensure you remember them, as you will this collection, for a very long time indeed.
Fine writing – not to be missed! 22 Dec 2008
by Mary McCluskey (UK).
The many admirers of Tom Saunders’ debut collection of short stories, Brother, What Strange Place is This? will be delighted to discover this second collection. Roof Whirl Away again displays this writer's considerable talent and ability to engage and entertain. He is a master of the short story form. The stories range from the expertly crafted intensity of the title story to the raunchy tale of La Hooters McDade, the central character in “Big”.
Saunders is a lyrical writer who never loses clarity or focus. He is also a shrewd observer of the human condition. His characters are both intriguing and believable, often caught at a moment that will define or change their lives. Each story offers something new, something different, an insight, a visual that will stay in the memory.
Treat yourself, or buy this collection for someone who loves fine writing. Not to be missed.
First class collection. 6 Jan 2009
by Steve Augarde (UK)
Novelists are always pleased to see the phrase “I couldn’t put it down” or “this is a real page-turner” in any review of their work. It implies that the reader has been carried breathlessly along from start to finish, in thrall to the power of the narrative.
Short story writers hope for something rather different - that their book will be put down, for a period of contemplation, and that the impulse to keep turning the pages will be resisted. Only then can the power of each piece be appreciated.
This approach to reading takes discipline, particularly if the writer happens to be Tom Saunders, because the temptation to move straight on to the next gem is strong. But the pause is worthwhile. Mr. Saunders’ work has such breadth and scope in both subject matter and execution, that each story needs to be savoured and considered.
Saunders has great authority, the confident tread of one who has been around the block a few times, and who has seen and heard pretty much everything that the block has to offer. It’s all here - murder, tenderness and mayhem. But Saunders also has the writing skills to bring a fresh eye to the grand tour, and we're very happy for him to lead us where he will.
Take my advice and approach these stories as a series of outings, rather than one long journey. Keep a copy of Roof Whirl Away by your bed, hop on board when the mood takes you, and hang onto your hat.
A must-read collection. 22 Jan 2009
by WJB (UK)
Following on from his first collection of short stories, Brother What Strange Place is This? (2004), Tom Saunders once again excels in this new collection, in which he explores the foibles and frailties of humanity with refreshing originality and insight. He is a master at revealing the hopes and longings, secrets and desires, of a diverse range of people in language that is hauntingly beautiful. Whether telling us about Betsy’s search for “something she truly wanted” in “Happy Hour All Day”, or the loneliness of a man in “Nothing About Love”, at the heart of every story is a thought-provoking revelation of the joy and suffering of being human.
These stories are memorable little gems, to be read and savoured by every one who loves fine writing.
Great short stories. 26 Jan 2009
by E Loffredo (UK)
I enjoyed this book mostly because of the concise, clear and poetic language. Tom Saunders is quick with unexpected and delightful images that often flash out of sordid situations inhabited by gritty characters. The reason why I did not give the book the maximum rating is probably my own fault - I tried to take in too much at once.
Sidling up to the story. 12 February 2009
by R N Morris (London, UK)
Roof Whirl Away is the second collection of short stories from Tom Saunders. In his first, Brother, What Strange Place is This? published by UKA Press in 2004, Saunders demonstrated a remarkable imaginative range, a fine ear for the musical possibilities of language, and an equally fine eye for the telling details of human lives. The same qualities are very much in evidence here.
Saunders has a way of coming at his stories side-on, as if he is trying to take his characters off-guard, so that they are almost lured into revealing more of themselves than they might. This lateral approach means that his openings - and titles - often have an indirect, or misdirected, feel, occasionally to the point of obtuseness. “Marlon Brando had a pet racoon called Russell,” begins one story which turns out, either playfully or perversely depending on your point of view, to have nothing to do with either Marlon Brando or his racoon. The effect is that the reader is thrown off balance too. We're forced to abandon whatever assumptions we might have had about the narrative direction and... pay attention!
This is less taxing than it sounds, because the stories both command and reward our attention. The opening hooks compel through their obliquity, but the writing as a whole engages us through its essential humanity and - an unfashionable virtue perhaps - optimism. Even a story about the death of an aged bookseller, “Postscript”, manages to be uplifting. Much of its power is down to the alert simplicity of the prose. “The birds quieten and everything becomes still. The words in the book are a journey. He steps along with them. There will be a full stop and he must travel to meet it." It's a small, quiet story that achieves its effects without sensationalism or sentimentality. Saunders seems to understand what to leave out as much as what to put in, an important skill for a short story writer.
In the longer stories, Saunders allows the characters more space in which to reveal and unravel. Rather than lyrical glimpses into a life at a crucial moment, dramas are played out, with fully fleshed out casts, and rich narrative detail. The title story, about a young French boy being looked after by his emotionally damaged grown-up sister, while their actor parents are away touring, has all the quirky charm and tempestuous drama of your favourite foreign movie. “The Great House of Easement” is set in post-Soviet St Petersburg and tells the story of a 93 year-old toilet attendant. In fact, Timofey Petrovitch Shulgin had been an outspoken dissident during the communist years, sentenced to labour in the toilets in the Alekseyevsky Vault as some kind of Stalinist joke. In typical Saunders' style, the story shifts focus to Timofey’s wayward grandson, Grigory, a gay, and when needs be transvestite, prostitute, making a living from stealing cameras and identities from the tourists he picks up. What comes across is not just Saunders’ imaginative fertility, but also his generosity as a writer. Almost every character is afforded the honour of a fully-imagined back-story and inner life. The story comes close to being a metaphor for modern Russia’s embrace of rampant capitalism, but is rescued from that by the complex humanity of the characters, and their never-failing ability to surprise. A case in point is old Timofey’s reaction to his grandson’s confessional outpourings. “... this banquet of contrition is giving me the croup. Your shame, Grigory, is your shame alone. Express it too lavishly around other people and it will begin to feel like vanity. Accept when you are forgiven and shut up.”
Overall, what impresses most is the sheer range. Saunders is able to enter into the lives of his diverse characters, from a king’s favourite dwarf to an alien life form, with great compassion and commitment.
29th November 2015. Richard Lewis, who lives on the island of Bali in the Pacific, put this up on Facebook: “Now that I own a Kindle (which are not easy to come by in Indonesia) I've been on a reading binge, including works by Zoetropers.
I finished Tom Saunders' short story collection "Roof Whirl Away", treating myself each few days like I would a fine chocolate with vintage merlot – well, actually, since I'm more a beer and chips guy, let's say salt-and-vinegar kettle chips with a fine craft IPA beer. Boy, they were good, the stories. From short gems perfectly faceted to longer ...pieces such as the titular story. Such inventive ideas, such terrific characters, such wise insight. John Updike famously wrote only one science fiction story, and I don't know if Tom has only written one as well, but "Simile 101" sparked my sockets, or as the story's alien might shriek, "EXCELLENT NEURONAL STIMULUS."
But my personal favorite was the wonderfully off-kilter "Delayed Action", wherein two couples, newly acquainted on holiday, dance around each other. One couple are self-declared "Arch Necromancers of the 7th Circle" and the wife of the other couple puts them to the test: "Make me disappear." Nuff said. You should read it. All of 'em.”
Inappropriate Happiness is possibly the best novel I've ever read.
I finished it for the third time ... this hot afternoon in the cool shade of a grape arbor at at my local crocery, nursing what we call an "Arnold Palmer" which is half iced tea and half lemonade. Two people asked what I was reading, presumably because they observed me so thoroughly absorbed and probably animate with varying emotions for three hours.
I recalled a long ago thread wherein Tom said the best dialogue is analogous to a fencing match. I.H. is living proof of the veracity of that principle, and so much more.
When I paused reading I watched ordinary people passing in an out of the big automatic store doors and couldn't help but wonder about their inner lives. Were they like Edward, Kitto, Belle or any of the other marvelously drawn characters I'd been reading about? Of course they were.
The book "literally" altered the way I people watch and somewhat the way I view the world, especially television. HA!
It's a marvelous, wonderful, simple story about everyday people whose very limitations faults and pettiness somehow manages to distinguish them - ennobles them, even, by simply humanizing them.
It's not a good book, it's a great book that should be read and enjoyed by everyone. Somehow I think it will be and I be able to say, "Tom Saunders? He's a buddy of mine."
Webb Johnson, USA, September 2009.
Tom Saunders's excellent character study, revolves around the naturally private, reticent narrator, Edward. After the death of his father, Edward moves into the old water mill the old man had been renovating, determined to live his own life, finally out of the shadow of his disapproving father. On the opening page, Saunders writes, "We had separate lives he and I, such separate lives. No, I take that back, not separate, parallel, together but not together; now apart, finally."
As Edward settles back into the life of the small town in which he grew up—and in which everyone knows his history—he allows two stranded artists (Belle and Kitto) to stay at the old mill temporarily. This is against his better judgement, and his private nature too. It is also something his father would never allow or approve of; maybe that is exactly why Edward lets them stay.
Here the novel kicks into gear, and becomes very Hemingway-esque in the simple strength of its distinct characters, and the love triangle that inevitably develops. Saunders brings the characters to life, not only with their words, but their actions. Here the smitten Edward watches Belle sketch a young man working:
I am astonished by how quickly and confidently she draws, the bravura way she captures the turning of a leg and the lifting of an arm on paper. If she makes a mistake she remedies it with a rapid stroke of her pencil, each new line a refinement of the one before, the figure a series of shapes placed on top of one another, dynamic rather than static: the arc of the hammer, the angle of the back, the slant of the hips, the splaying of the feet. Somehow the boy and his everyday job are transformed by the sketch, the pose becoming heroic, timeless even.
"You're making him uncomfortable," I say.
Several seconds go by. Then, just as I am starting to think she is not going to reply, she stops drawing and says, "He'll get over it."
"I don't think I would."
"Who said you'll get the chance?"
Kitto, Belle's boyfriend, is the opposite of Edward: brash, arrogant, selfish. Why the world doesn't love his paintings as much as he does is a mystery to him. Why Belle stays with Kitto, who takes Belle for granted, is a mystery to Edward, a frustration that gnaws at him as his own relationship with Belle grows.
Inappropriate Happiness is a great literary work; one that should be read widely, one that should be honored with awards, and studied in writing courses. The size of the press limits these chances, but my dream is that Oprah will pluck this gem out of the small publishers haystack and give it the exposure it deserves.
Capone's Hit List
Don Capone, October 2009
Edward is the thwarted and ineffective son of a self-made man. From his father he has inherited both money and property - a rambling old mill, which Edward now inhabits. He spends his time watching endless hours of television, and pondering an existence that continues to be overshadowed by the influence of his father.
Two young artists come into Edward's life, a man and a woman. They impose themselves upon him, moving into the mill to quickly dominate his world and all his thoughts. The man, Kitto, is arrogant, selfish, and of questionable artistic ability. His partner Belle appears subjugated but more obviously talented.
There are few narrative surprises in what follows. The naive and sexually inexperienced Edward falls in love with Belle, and attempts to rescue her from her boorish partner. But Belle is no maiden in distress, and ultimately controls the dance. We readers sit like gaffers in the village pub, nodding our heads sagely at each successive folly, and telling ourselves that we knew `twould be thus. We could see trouble coming from the outset.
If Thomas Hardy were alive today this might well be the story he would be telling - and mainstream publishers would be faced with an awkward decision: is Hardy's stealthy approach still viable? Tom Saunders has a wonderful gift for language, a tangible delight in its use. He takes his time - a luxury that few modern writers allow themselves, or are allowed nowadays. What is essentially a simple story is raised to another level, and we are treated to a devastating scrutiny of the human psyche without ever feeling that we are being talked down to. In an age of cheap and instant thrills, this richness of writing is what we're missing, what we're in danger of losing. Publishers take note.
A reader , October 2009
The book is ostensibly Edward's account of his own life up to a particular moment. He tells us where he is sitting as he writes, the author is ever present, and we are left to make up our own minds regarding his reliability as narrator.
Edward is an anti-hero, a person who has learned to expect failure, a bitter disappointment to his late father who still dominates his thoughts and provides the key to his character. Edward exudes ineffectually, his life seems to have been a long catalogue of defeats and embarrassments, his friendships few, his love-life up to now entirely inside his head, his chief entertainment second-rate TV shows, which wash over him as he sits alone in his room and philosophises.
Edward's primary mission is to complete his father's plans for the semi-derelict watermill that he has inherited and in which he is now living, even though he has little idea what these plans were. The story is set in motion by the arrival of two penniless young artists, an attractive woman named Belle and her uncouth male partner Kitto, who bullies Edward into allowing them to take up residence in an outhouse in the grounds of the mill.
Predictably, Edward's tendency to idolise and idealise attractive women and fantasise about forming relationships with them surfaces again. His past has included obsessive infatuation and discreet stalking. Belle the artist is now the one in his sights, and we can see that the situation has the potential for sudden violence and high tragedy.
As the story progresses an atmosphere of unease and foreboding develops, with the possibility of murder explicitly raised. I was reminded of the atmosphere of Emlyn Williams' Night Must Fall, where we are almost certain that something terrible is going to happen, but uncertain as to what and when. Almost any of the three central characters might have wielded the murder weapon, but it is not in the style of Tom Saunders to pander to the expectations of his readers.
The novel, like most of Tom's short stories, is above all a character study, most obviously of Edward, the reclusive introvert who narrates the tale, but also of everyone who puts in an appearance. The author is brave in taking as his central character someone for whom we feel little sympathy, although we can clearly see the roots of all his shortcomings, and experience at times acute discomfort in recognising similar tendencies in ourselves. The most attractive character, I thought, was Belle: basically good- natured, fun-loving, ever willing to prop up the ego of the men in her life, under-valuing her own talent, cheerfully tolerant of the weaknesses of those around her. Not a 'strong woman' in today's terms, perhaps, but irresistibly likeable as a character and definitely true to her era -the novel seems to be set some decades in the past: a time when people still smoked in bars, drove Rover cars and believed in 'free love'.
Regarding the quality of the writing, it's difficult to assess it without sounding sycophantic. There are jaw-dropping moments when we realise that a passage isn't just good, it's the best of its kind we have ever read. An example would be the simple and condensed account of Edward's one-time obsession with Suzy, his former work colleague in the local bookshop. I don't think there has ever been a sharper, more succinct or more poignant account of a one-sided love affair. Another example would be Edward's typically half-baked pieces of homespun philosophy that can suddenly express a profound in sight: '...you must look obliquely if you wish to understand... each story requires the reader to find the truth amongst its lies, no matter how transparent they might seem at first glance...Stories. You cannot live outside them. Beginnings, middles and ends.'
Tom Saunders is without doubt a very gifted writer, unable to put a foot wrong in the art and craft of creating great prose. If I were required to find something to criticise in his work I think it would be a slight tendency towards tameness in terms of plot, where we may feel that there has been a big build-up to a conclusion that doesn't quite match it in grandeur. I suppose as readers we long for elevation above the mundane, when the truth about the human condition is that life is constructed almost entirely out of the perfectly banal and ordinary. The real job of the artist perhaps is to reveal the poignant and heroic in that.
Issue 16, December 2009
Review and interview by David Gardiner
The Corner of Moon Street
A highly recommended collection.