Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
This is an elegant little book, with black and white illustrations by Marc Beattie. It contains four unsettling stories, which vary in time and place.
In Ragman, the first story, Katherine’s father has left his wife to go and live at the reclamation yard he owns. Katherine follows to try and persuade him to come home. As she works and sleeps overnight in the Yard, her childhood fears of the place return and take on new manifestations, until she is driven into desperate action.
This story has a particularly strong setting. Katherine introduces us step by step to the different collections in the Yard, the mirrors, the toys, the 1930s manikins and the things her family have invested with personality by giving them names, including Fred the Dead, Harriet the wooden mermaid, and the Ragman himself. The place we might enjoy visiting changes into somewhere more sinister and we are drawn deeper into the heart of her troubles.
In the next story, Fetch, a man reminisces about his wife and the curious visions from which he suffered soon after they were married in the 1950s. This story made less impression on me, although I liked the way the reader is drawn to look between the lines for a different understanding of events from the one on the surface.
Teuthida is set in the USA, in Boston, and concerns the unhappy childhood of Henry Lawncroft. His mother has convinced him that his arms will drop off if he raises them above his head and that he will go blind if he sees the stars. This story conjures up the intense atmosphere that surrounds Henry and his friend Martin in a very peculiar household, particular to its time and place, and shows us the impact on Henry throughout his life.
For Two Songs is another story set in the past, in the days of Lyons Corner Houses and trolley buses. Eliza and Stanley remember their first encounter as children, in the photography studio run by Stanley’s father. Eliza’s family are there for a memorial picture to be taken with Eliza’s sister, who has just died and is to be posed as if still alive. The manipulation of the dead body leads to a terrible experience for the two children, one they cannot fully explain but are both glad to be able to talk about. There is a strong feeling for the past in this story and two characters bound by the constraints of their time. As they slowly work through their memories of the ordeal they suffered, they draw us powerfully into their world.
As Rebecca Lloyd says in her brief afterword, all these stories are about relationships and tensions within families. The characters in each engage our interest and make us believe in their lives beyond the brief episodes in which we see them. The horrors they encounter are more than projections from their minds but draw their power from the characters’ struggles to deal with their particular situations and with the people who mean most to them. The strongest emotions are aroused in the reader, as well as in the characters, not by the supernatural or inexplicable events that occur but by the impact of other people’s cruelty.