The Sound of White Ants, by Brian Howell

Reviewed by by Nels Stanley Okay, one thing you should know, that I'm going to get out of the way before this review gets underway: if you're the sort of reader who quails at the thought of fantasy that doesn't involve the orc/elf/unicorn triptych/gang-bang, or the sort of horror aficionado who finds it impossible to find demonstrable cause for psychological discomfort or fear without (at the very least) a vampire wrapped in a long black trenchcoat, skip this review. Skip this book. Go buy a Buffy tie-in novel or the latest Dragonlance.

Cover of Sound of White AntsOn the other hand, if you have the equivalent reading skills/mental age required to navigate a book that wears its genre elements lightly yet unequivocally (yes, like you’d wear a +10 cloak of invisibility, if that’s your thing), have a passing interest in contemporary Japanese society or just enjoy mature, well-written, occasionally beautiful prose combined with often deceptively clever story construction, then beg, borrow or steal this book.

Howell’s writing, by turns powerful, chilling and touching, makes demands of the reader. It — and the repeated motif of modern Japanese mores — forces one to actually think about the stories and characters he presents, whether it’s the ineffably tragic family relationships brought under the microscope in stories such as Scale Model or the feckless, damaged and lonely Akinobu, S&M loving protagonist of the title story (one of a series of torn males throughout).

Unlike, say, Angela Carter, whose alchemical stories of the Far East one might reach for to compare Howell’s book, it’s worth noting that Howell’s examination of the Land of the Rising Sun is not written from an outsider’s perspective. Rather, these are tales examining people’s place in society, the roles, which they play, as they see themselves. He is therefore able to pick at the ragged seams of early Twenty-first Century life of people whom have either subjected themselves — or have been subjected by external forces — to the immense demands five thousand years of tradition, culture and custom make on that most fragile of creatures, the human being. Here there are hints at lessons, then (nothing so wilfully clunky as a moral) which are as universally applicable to you or I as to their oft-repressed inhabitants.

That is not to say that this is a perfect volume; some of the stories do outstay their welcome, and occasionally Howell’s voice falters, but a story as beautiful as A Loss is worth five pounds of your hard-earned any day of the week. A triumph of quietly cumulative shudder.

Published by: Elastic Press (£5).