Envy, snobbery and xenophobia coexist with such literal crimes as child abuse and drug-peddling.
In each of the 12 tales here, a settled life is either gradually or abruptly disturbed. When the Winter family depart (in “Stone”) from its guided tour of China and Hong Kong to “travel independently,” they find themselves abetting the very human-rights violations they righteously deplore. In “Powder,” London solicitor Peter Pelham accidentally takes possession of a stash of cocaine, wonders how it might improve his dull, respectable life—and finds paradoxical fulfillment in risking his family’s security. British author Kneale (Mr. Foreigner, 2003, etc.) roams widely abroad in brisk, incisive portrayals of an overweight, twice-divorced geologist traveling China’s Silk Road and encountering an Asian Muslim beauty who seems to love him for himself (“Weight”); an unproductive writer whose submissive affair with a wealthy older woman is redefined when they purchase a rundown Italian villa (“Sunlight”); and a young Palestinian suicide bomber’s sorrowful resignation to the fate his culture requires of him (“White”). A few stories misfire: an anecdotal account of a Colombian family’s revenge against a heartless coca dealer (“Leaves”), for instance, and a tale of a pampered noblewoman given a lesson in living by the maid she suspects of stealing from her (“Taste”). Both lack the sense of narrative completeness Kneale builds into such successes as the story of an Englishman caught up in a protest demonstration in North Africa, whence he has come to pursue an agenda chillingly foreshadowed in the best of all these pieces’ single-word titles: “Metal.” Even better are brilliantly wrought accounts of a young music journalist’s confrontation with his unknown “stalker” (“Sound”) and the undoing (in “Numbers”) of a computer analyst’s ordered domestic life by the specter of a death in his extended family.
A most unusual debut collection, and a very good one indeed.