Thursday, 23 January 2020

The False River by Nick Holdstock


I think somewhere within us, you could probably chart it back to childhood's fairy tales, there's an expectation that stories will have a happy ending. The hero or heroine may struggle through loss and hard times, but when they reach the final page their ending will be happy. Well, not here.  

In this collection of twelve short stories, Nick Holdstock brings us a glimpse of a world where it seems like if something can go wrong, it will. The characters struggle with loss, anger, ill health, or just the weight of day to day life, and circumstances thwarting their hopes of happiness. Somewhere, I felt, they'd all had a chance of a better life, but missed out.

The last story, The Curve of the Heavens, takes a step to the side, inviting the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, letting them see how the story is crafted, the characters moved around, good and bad luck distributed, and destiny decided by an omnipotent author. Here for once there's a happy ending of sorts, but my favourite was the preceding one, The Slope, about a young pianist determined to enjoy music (and, by extension, life) and leave the hard bits for another day.

Holdstock's prose is sparse. He writes as if watching his characters from a distance, uninvolved other than as an observer, but still building empathy for them in the reader.

I first read this book a few months ago but the overall mood seemed sad, and I wasn't in the right personal place for sad stories. Looking through the list of 'read but not reviewed' books I realised it had somehow slipped through and revisited it. I still found a lot of sadness, of life going pear-shaped, of missed opportunities, but this time, from a better personal position, I saw people still trying to hang onto hope despite everything. One of the characters describes them as "Broken people ill-treated by life who still cannot give up" - and I can't put it better.

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