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