RSPCA- bait­ing short sto­ries

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Au­thor Va­lerie Martin

Pub­lisher Ser­pent’s Tail

There’s no deny­ing that Or­ange Prize- win­ning au­thor Va­lerie Martin can write beau­ti­fully: her prose is lyri­cal yet func­tional, com­pelling and evoca­tive, and her char­ac­ters feel real ( which is un­com­fort­able, given that so many are bas­tards). But de­spite all the ac­claim she’s had, you’re left won­der­ing some­thing rather vi­tal after read­ing this col­lec­tion of 12 short sto­ries: was there a point to them?

Many seem to sput­ter out and die with­out a punch­line; some are snap­shots of lives that aren’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing; oth­ers fo­cus on char­ac­ters so rep­re­hen­si­ble you get no plea­sure from read­ing their thoughts.

Thank­fully there’s joy to be found else­where. The book is split into three sec­tions: the first fo­cus­ing on hu­mans do­ing hor­ri­ble things to an­i­mals, the sec­ond about artists and the third – the ones of rel­e­vance to this magazine – about an­i­mal/ hu­man hy­brids. Nat­u­rally, the open­ing sto­ries are re­pug­nant, and be­cause Martin writes with such poise and hon­esty, they’re of­ten deeply un­set­tling. The sec­ond round of sto­ries are fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights into the minds of cre­ative types, with “The Un­fin­ished Novel” the col­lec­tion’s high­light ( would you be care­taker of a book writ­ten by some­one you hated who’s far bet­ter an au­thor than you, thus eclips­ing your own fame? Tricky...).

The fi­nal sto­ries, which fea­ture a psy­chotic mer­maid, were-crea­tures and the rather lovely cen­taur of “Et In Ar­ca­dia Ego”, are fas­ci­nat­ing, as­sum­ing they don’t end just as you’re start­ing to re­ally care about them. Per­haps Sea Lovers’ flaw, then, isn’t the sub­ject matter it­self, but the for­mat: Martin’s work isn’t best served in small doses, but in larger, more ex­pan­sive chunks. Although read­ing an en­tire novel about a cat starv­ing to death might not be that nice, ei­ther... Jayne Nel­son

Martin’s 1990 novel Mary Reilly, which told the story of Dr Jekyll from a ser­vant’s POV, was turned into a 1996 movie.

Many sto­ries seem to sput­ter out and die

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