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by Michel Faber

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-15-101314-2
Publisher: Harcourt

Eccentrics, misfits, sociopaths and outright criminals populate the cosmopolitan (Dutch-born, now Scottish) author’s sleek, disturbing, gruesomely funny short stories.

His second collection includes 16 brisk extended vignettes whose thinly characterized protagonists are cogs in varied familial, marital and bureaucratic machines. Orwell and Kafka are channeled in the misadventure of a disoriented homeless man who foregoes recovering his forgotten past, preferring “the gift of brute shelter” offered by the regimented comforts of “The Safehouse.” A divorced father returns his young daughter home from a visit to the house he shares with his male lover, until their interrupted train journey takes them in an unanticipated direction (“All Black”). In “Andy Comes Back,” a recovered comatose patient is briefly reunited with the family who had believed him lost to them forever—before choosing the life he knows he’s now meant to live. Faber creates memorably subversive images of embattled family dynamics in the plaintive story of an unfit mother attempting to shed self-destructive addictions and reclaim her young son from foster care (“Serious Swimmers”); an ironic look at a self-absorbed father’s imagined competition with his freedom-seeking teenaged children (the title story); and a horrific conte cruel in which a beleaguered new mother serendipitously discovers how to disable her newborn’s constant demands (“The Smallness of the Action”). Faber miscalculates in stories that do not fulfill the promises of their premises (a supermarket worker’s macho fantasies in “Less Than Perfect”; conventioneers driven to erotic frenzy by lectures on the physiology of the eponymous fruit in “Explaining Coconuts”). But echoes of Saki, John Collier and Roald Dahl are heard in depictions of an ailing dictator matching wits with the imprisoned woman surgeon who alone can save him (“Finesse”); an arrogant Scots couple unhinged by their flirtation with life in “the wild” (“A Hole with Two Ends”); and a violent thug whose compulsive mayhem leads him back to “Someone to Kiss It Better.”

Minor work from the author of The Courage Consort (2004, etc.), though animated by a polished, oddly engaging nastiness.