Fully drawn characters and arresting premises in three vivid, varied tales, courtesy of the Dutch-born Scottish author best known for his Victorian historical The Crimson Petal and the White (2002).
“The Fahrenheit Twins” is a modern (perhaps futuristic) fairy tale in which the sibling offspring of anthropological researchers on an Arctic archipelago grow up benignly neglected and ignored by their respective parents. The death of their mother plunges the children (Tainto’lilith and her brother Marko’cain) into a “ritual” burial voyage that’s also an odyssey of discovery and shedding of illusions about adults and about their own relationship to the natural world they labor to quantify and understand. “The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps” focuses on Sian, a 30-ish archaeological conservator working on a dig at an abbey graveyard in the English seaside village of Whitby. Burdened by grievous injuries sustained in war-torn Bosnia and by a recurring “dream of being first seduced, then murdered,” Sian achieves a paradoxical understanding of her limitations and her potential through an unresolved flirtation with a handsome young doctor and her deciphering of an 18th-century “scroll” whose “confession” starkly illustrates her own world’s distance from a bygone one sustained by social convention and religious faith. This beautifully plotted story displays strengths even more impressively evident in the title novella, the story of a labor undertaken by “the seventh most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world.” Ensconced in a Belgian chateau, the five members of the eponymous a cappella consort rehearse eccentric postmodernist composer Pino Fugazza’s exasperatingly intricate “Partitum Mutante,” a portentous musical allegory of (among other things) the birthing process. Faber’s elegant tale deftly traces relationships among the embattled singers, particularly the consort director’s wife, soprano Catherine Courage, as the “Partitum” and her surroundings expose her own emotional divisions and needs. It’s a most unusual story, and a brilliant achievement.
Faber marches on, establishing himself as one of the most versatile fiction writers working today.