Suffer Little Children by Penny Jones
Black Shuck Books eBook: £0.99, Pb: £4.99
Reviewed by Dave Jeffery
With Suffer Little Children, writer Penny Jones has pulled together six tales centred, as the title suggests, on ghastly events involving ‘those pesky kids’. What is unusual in this diminutive collection is the strength and consistency of Jones’ stories. Perhaps no surprise, then, that this collection earned the writer a British Fantasy Award nomination for Best Newcomer.
In order, the stories contained in the collection are as follows:
BENEATH STILL WATERS is a tale of loss and the manifestation of grief in a convoluted, intricate narrative. As an introduction to Jones’ style of storytelling, this is a fine start as an ambiguity to the unfolding events and an unstable narrator leave the reader off-kilter throughout.
Jones has dark fun with THE CHANGELING, where a sleepwalking son and an insomniac father create an unnerving tale of paranoia and uncertainty. The ending to this tale was a masterful demonstration of the writer’s ability to create a story, which, through carefully crafted ambiguity, leads the reader to two conclusions, each equally as horrific as the other.
In SWANSONG, a brother is left to babysit his petulant and demanding younger brother. Jones uses sibling rivalry as a vehicle to explore the nuances of growing up and the frustrations of enforced responsibility. When the inevitable happens, it is subtle and poignant, with a narrative that is crafted to perfection.
SWIMMING OUT TO SEA is a deliciously dreamlike, surreal story about a young girl caught in a riptide and battling to return to the beach, a goal she eventually achieves, yet her fight to find her family continues when she finally makes dry land. Part allegory, part cautionary introspective, this beautifully told story ebbs and flows like the very ocean. Again, the ending is adroitly vague, the story keeping hold of the reader like the relentless current.
IT’S NOT JUST HOW BEAUTIFUL YOU ARE sees Jones at her most mischievous in a twist on the school bully yarn. It is inventive, possibly the darkest of the six tales, and the ending avoids detection until the very last paragraph. To say any more runs the risk of spoiling this dark, clever tale for subsequent readers.
WAXING is a sombre tale of a girl admitted to an undisclosed facility, where she is emotionally symbiont with a mysterious doll. Again, ambiguity is the order of the day, and the lines between reality and paranoia drive a mesmerising narrative of abuse, misplaced trust, and fractured lived experience.
Suffer Little Children may have youngsters as its theme, but it is clear to anyone who has even a rudimentary knowledge of mental health and mental illness that there is a heavy interplay between these stories and how such issues can be viewed and interpreted by the reader. Jones’ background as a mental health professional is on show in spades here, and when applied to the narrative, these stories take on a level of profundity rarely found in the genre. Without resorting to cliché or wielding stigmatising language, Jones’ characters and their pervading situations become both heart-stopping and heart-breaking. The writing is delicate and nuanced, making the most of the underlying tension in each tale, and demonstrating an author not afraid to shy away from opacity, thus avoiding those ‘story-by-numbers’ endings so many fall back on.
In Suffer Little Children, Jones has corralled a strong and deeply meaningful collection, infused with powerful observations of the human psyche, and makes for an unsettling reading experience.
Simply wonderful and, of course, highly recommended.