I’m writing this review in March, long before the book’s publication date which is unusual for me but after being struck down by a particularly nasty bug leaving me with a head so stuffed full of cotton wool that I was unable to read for four days I needed a way back in. Short stories seemed to be the answer which led me to Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places. I’d enjoyed her debut, The Night Guest, very much so it seemed just the ticket. Apologies if what follows is a little pedestrian: my critical faculties are somewhat blunted by a brutal hacking cough and not much sleep but I’ll do my best.
The collection comprises thirteen stories written over ten years – eight previously unpublished – and ranges far and wide, both in terms of geography and subject. Some tend towards the slightly surreal while other are more conventional but all are inventive. A small selection should give you a flavour. In ‘Man and Bird’ a vicar seems disconcertingly inseparable from his parrot then it becomes clear he believes the bird to be a messenger from God. The inhabitants of a small town are so stricken when their brief flirtation with the movie world is over that they begin to dress in costume, re-enacting their walk-on parts, in ‘The Movie People’. Reunited in Athens, forty years after they first met, the anxious, happily married Dwyers find themselves overawed by the confident, self-regarding Andersons until, suddenly, it becomes clear they’re not quite as invulnerable as they appear, in ‘Mycenae’. ‘Buttony’ sees a quietly charismatic little boy thwarting his classmates’ passion for their teacher’s afternoon game with frightening results while ‘Those Americans Falling from the Sky’ is a vivid childhood memory of a small town, playing host to American soldiers practicing their parachuting skills and charming the local kids, with a shocking discovery at its end.
The disquieting quality of much of this collection is evident right from the get go with the opening story’s first line: ‘My wife was driving on the night they hit Mr Ronald’. These are not horror stories but they’re distinctly unsettling, often exploring the odder areas of human behaviour. McFarlane’s writing is as striking as I remembered it from The Night Guest. ‘Ellie was pretty in such a sensible way, but Kath required adjustments’ thinks Henry of the well-turned out young woman he’s selected for his wife over the lover he’s being spending his Sunday nights with for years, in ‘Art Appreciation’. In ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ a couple ‘changed their clothes and it felt to Sarah, briefly, as if it had been David’s suit and her dress that had married each other earlier in the day’. Not all the stories worked for me – ‘Violet, Violet’ about an introverted young PhD student whose half-cleaned room leads him into very odd territory seemed to fizzle out, as if McFarlane wasn’t sure what to do with it next. That said, there’s enough here to please readers who enjoyed The Night Guest, all served up with an appealingly wry humour.