FIGUREHEAD by Carly Holmes. Book review

FIGUREHEAD by Carly Holmes, Tartarus Press, hardback, £35.00

Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson

This collection of short stories called for a thorough review as the writing style of Carly Holmes can often achieve great heights of truly exquisite description that successfully and uniquely expands the use of the language. Furthermore all the stories are unconsciously framed in an obvious feminine context that helps to emphasise the apparent vulnerability of her characters. Given the subject matter is often about the circumstances of unusual, sometimes broken personalities existing at the margins of society then this truly is quality literature of our modern times.

All bibliophiles enjoy a Tartarus Press publication as each is presented as a book should be; beautifully bound with a ribbon bookmark, competently edited, clearly and cleanly printed on decent paper with a jacket to match. This is the art of real publishing! Sadly, the cat chose to print her bottom on the jacket of the review copy but that is all about life, isn’t it?

There are twenty-six short stories of variable length in this volume, all demonstrating the writer’s unique style. Most will fall into the description of horror; but living with this book for a while it became apparent that actually these are often rational statements made by unfortunate or bizarre characters who often can be found lurking on the periphery of society. The horror originates not in them and what they do, but from the social mainstream. As a judgement of our times each story becomes a plea for a more inclusive society. After a while this reviewer stopped being horrified to be encouraged into empathy. This may not be the intention of this book but the obvious insanity of many of the illustrated personalities induced sympathy.

The best stories are the shortest ones; quick, clear often brutal narratives as to how things happen given certain occurrences. `Little Matrons’ is a sympathetic tale as to how life must be for Russian dolls. Such personification of inanimate objects is echoed in the title story `Figurehead’ which is the boisterous tale embodying the thoughts of a ship’s figurehead. `Sleep’ is a chilling tale of a mother seeking to protect her cruel child from himself. `Dropped Stitches’ is the ugly story of a mother who steals her child’s fingers. Such reflections on human cruelty and depravity pervade. `The Glamour’ is a deplorable tale of suicide, delicately presented, whilst `Wich’ is about an illiterate reviled for wanting to be literate. `Woodside Close’ is a rather hilarious tale which reminded this reviewer of Robert Holdstock’s `Mythago Wood’.

Petty tyranny is a common feature of our times and is cheerfully given a good thrashing by Holmes. `They Tell Me’ is about misplaced medical practices verging on outright quackery and the complicity of naïve next of kin. `Restless’ is about tooth fairies – dentistry seems to be a fascination of Holmes, along with not wearing knickers – associated with fruit, memory and the treachery of the faerie folk.

The longer tales such as `Ghost Story’ and `Three for a Girl’ are disturbing for different reasons. `Ghost Story’ deteriorates into a rather conventional tale of ghostly encounters, whereas `Three for a Girl’ adopts a rather repetitive plot which causes the reader to wonder whether Holmes has got too far into the character or is teasing the reader. `A Small Life’ is about the collective virtue of an all-male rowing team disturbed by the appearance of the opposite sex.

Holmes likes to shock and this is how she has come under the Tartarus Press title. How her style develops will be interesting. Her capability in the production of short stories is very apparent but it will be interesting to see how this obvious talent gets channelled into longer story formats. Definitely a writer to watch out for.