Terse, droll, and unsettling tales from a highly idiosyncratic young British writer. Barker has drawn together 19 stories from two collections not yet published here. They share with her novels (Wide Open, 1998, etc.) a conviction that life is stranger than we imagine—and perhaps stranger than we can imagine—and that only those willing to pursue extreme behavior of one sort or another (or incapable of doing otherwise) are likely to glimpse the true, deeply weird parameters of existence. A 16-year-old girl, in "Layla's Nose Job," is burdened with a grotesque nose. But plastic surgery only serves to demonstrate that her strangeness isn't just skin-deep. The discovery turns her ingeniously violent. In "Inside Information," Martha, a professional shoplifter, becomes pregnant and attempts to turn her pregnancy to criminal advantage, only to find herself harassed by her foetus, which not only can talk but proves to have grisly plans of its own. It's impossible, many of these stories argue, for outsiders to escape their alienation. In three related pieces ("Blisters," "Braces," and "Mr. Lippy") featuring Wesley, a charming but damaged young man, attempts at normality are grimly, inevitably defeated. In "Skin," two young women, longtime friends, are driven apart when one of them has an odd (and liberating) sexual encounter with a male shoplifter at the clothing store where she works, finding that the event opens up a new world to her, one that is "simple, unadulterated, natural and yet unnatural," and one that terrifies her seemingly sophisticated friend. In the title story, one of Barker's most naturalistic, a middle-aged woman, who's been abandoned by her husband, discovers, thanks to the ministrations of several odd acquaintances, how little she needs him—and how wayward and liberating true eroticism is. The high strangeness quotient here means that these tales aren't for everyone. But those with a taste for odd, haunting characters, unsettling incidents, and a deadpan, savage sense of humor, will likely find them uniquely stirring.
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