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The High Places

Fiona Mcfar­lane (Scep­tre, £18.99)

Fiona Mcfar­lane’s de­but novel, The Night Guest, is still un­der my skin, two years af­ter i read it. The mo­ment when the new carer took off her shoes and started pad­ding about the old lady’s house in her bare feet, sub­tly tak­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal con­trol, left a lin­ger­ing af­ter­taste of creepi­ness. The High Places is the au­thor’s first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries: can she re-cre­ate that dis­turb­ing do­mes­tic weird­ness in these shorter works?

The an­swer is yes, she can— al­though the de­gree to which she man­ages to draw you into the psy­chol­ogy of the char­ac­ters varies. i found this col­lec­tion rather like one of those 1970s LPS where the best songs were on side a and, by the mid­dle of side B, it all went a bit psychedelic.

The first sen­tence of the first story—‘the wife was driv­ing on the night they hit Mr ronald’—has you gripped. The ‘wife’ im­plies the pres­ence of a hus­band, so we’re in­stantly drawn into a three-per­son drama com­plete with car ac­ci­dent in the dark. all the strange, heavy­breath­ing up-close­ness of The Night Guest is there. Sim­i­larly, in Art Ap­pre­ci­a­tion, we’re thrown into the thoughts of a not very nice man who has in­her­ited a wind­fall from his mother and, again, creepi­ness reigns.

The au­thor is aus­tralian and many of her plots are en­acted on ‘prop­er­ties’ of the kind you get in that coun­try, where you walk miles to mend a fence. She’s a mas­ter word­smith and her spare style suits the spare land­scape. i did get rather lost, how­ever, in some of the later sto­ries where you have a house­ful of char­ac­ters with first names, all loaf­ing about, and i couldn’t quite work out where it was all go­ing.

i’m al­ways im­pressed by the as­ton­ish­ing brazen­ness of short­story writ­ers: the way they dream up fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters and sce­nar­ios, only to bid farewell to them for­ever 20 pages later. Ysenda Max­tone Graham

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