REVIEW: Before and Afterlives (Christopher Barzak)

chris-barzak-front-coverOne For Sorrow gave me giddy writer-jealous and shivery reader-joy earlier this year–it might be my favourite book of the year, actually–so I figured I had no excuse not to read his collection of short stories. They came as part of my book haul from Lethe Press, and I’m reading it second because I was determined not to choose the book based superficially and shallowly on having a fantastic cover. (It does, though, doesn’t it?)

A short story, Dead Boy Found, that I assume to be the originator of One For Sorrow is part of the collection, and there’s a similar feeling that threads its way through the collection: otherness and strangeness as a fibre that binds the whole world together. There’s nothing that’s out-and-out horror here: the unifying factor of most of the stories is the odd or supernatural sometimes being far more tangible and reassuring than the real world. There’s an abundance of neat ideas fleshed out: the history of a haunted house, a bereaved mother who adopts a mermaid, an unhappy woman who starts spawning multiple copies of herself, a boy who continuously resurrects, a girl who can manifest ghosts, an imaginary friend writing to her deceased originator.

Aside from a set of stories that all revolve around a solid kernel of pleasing concept, the strength of most of the stories is Barzak’s considerable stylistic prowess. It elevates most of the stories into that somehow mythic atmosphere–like the story you’re being told around the campfire has been around for generations, and the story has roots in the earth somewhere. It’s the same kind of thing One For Sorrow has that lets it sink past superficial horror or supernatural stylings that a good deal of the genre falls into.

I didn’t love the whole collection. Born on the Edge of an Adjective and Map of Seventeen felt–to me at least, because several other reviewers seem to disagree–a bit flat, missing the kind of alchemy that made the others work. Maybe it’s something in the subject matter, because the stories are arguably similar mirrors of each other: narrated by a figure removed from a second central character who’s entered into a relationship with a figure revealed to be supernatural. Another story, Caryatids, was a solid story that felt oddly out of place, having such a hard-edged sci-fi feel to it, and had that slightly tub-thumpy feel of ‘point about gender fluidity made through sci-fi McGuffin’ that I’ve read iterations of before. Mind you, as iterations go, still a decent one, just not a favourite of the collection.

Negatives aside–I really did love the rest of the collection. Highlights were The Boy Was Born Wrapped In Barbed Wire, which gave me a thorough case of writer-envy with it’s perfectly captured undercurrent of dark fairytale. The Ghost Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter is fantastic as well, telling the story of a father and daughter who make their living exorcising ghosts by photographing them. The father believes that taking their picture banishes them, but the girl secretly has a book full of photographs that speak to her. The whole story is crammed full of such evocative images–the book of ghosts talking to each other is my standout image of the whole book–with a set of efficiently drawn, emotionally affecting characters. Classy stuff. Plenty should take that acolade that only rare texts, even those we enjoy, can do: creating what feels like an iconic, loved character instantly, in the altruistic Mrs Burroway. I picture here somewhere between Mother Goose and Dumbledore. And then there’s Vanishing Point, a mother’s tale of her son fading into invisibility, becoming a ghost, or dead, or vanished, or… something gone. It’s eerily sad, and puts an interesting spin on the Invisible Man mythology.

So all in all: a similar conclusion to my review on One For Sorrow. Damn, great book. Damn, I wish I could write like this–what Faustian pact has the man made? I feel a trip to buy his other novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing is in order.

Plus, another great outing from my Lethe Press pile. The going is good. Next up: A Study In Lavender, seeing as I’ve been asked to write a story for the follow-up; I’d better do some walking on the cobbles.

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