Valerie and Other Stories by Colin Insole
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's become so commonplace that it's almost laughable - short story collections are, for the most part, labelled "uneven". And, I get it, this is usually true. Pick up just about any short story collection and you're going to find at least one story, possibly more, that you will consider a dud. Such is human taste. And I'm a frequent user of the "uneven" label in my reviews, as well.
But this collection isn't "just about any short story collection". And when I use the term "uneven" to describe this collection, I am most explicitly not referring to the quality of the stories. Every one of the stories in this collection is remarkable and most of them are exceptional. The word "uneven" only refers to the tonal differences between each tale. They are all "of a piece" in that there is a thread of "voice" that sings throughout, but that voice is sometimes a distant echo, sometimes a ghostly shout in the ear - but a quietened shout, like the muffled sound of someone being smothered with a pillow combined with wind chimes down a country road. There is a quaint quality to the despair, more than just a veneer to the rot underneath - a kind of sprightly rural squalor, red agaric mushrooms whose consumption produces both mind-opening beauty and horrific shadow creatures in equal measure. The combination is alluring and repulsive at the same time, not just in the vivid descriptions that Insole unfolds, but in the emotional spaces of raw feeling that the characters inhabit. We are taken in by them because they are us in all our complexity of shameful ugliness and triumphant beauty, shouting our heady defiance at a cosmos that will, ultimately and inevitably, crush our life-force from us.
This is quickly evident in the first story, in which a mystical experience leads to self-deceit and a multi-layered betrayal in "The Hill of Cinders," which took several unexpected turns; many of them of an emotional bent that left me reeling when i thought back on some of the more foolish choices of my own youth. Five red stars falling from the sky for this weird tale.
I am rarely stunned by fables, and "The Binding" is no exception, though the writing is exceptionally good. I like the witchiness of it, but I am so over the tone of "fabulism" that I can't get too excited about it any more. I'm waiting for a fable that will prove the exception. Perhaps I was jaded by so many stories as a child. Nevertheless, I am not so jaded as to give this story less than four stars. So it is. This was the first big tonal switch in the collection, as I mentioned above. It threw me, at first, because of its seeming abruptness, but then Insole's storytelling carried me along to a satisfactory conclusion.
"The Slaves of Paradise" is a lush story of anguish told by an artist who accidentally, clumsily betrays his lover and the French resistance. The imagery in this story shall haunt me for some time. It is beautiful and tragic, in equal measure. The horror of stupidity and lack of attention to detail are on stark display here. This story will make you feel uncomfortable for every time you've accidentally hit "reply all" or forgotten an important appointment or made an unguarded remark to the wrong person about someone close to you - but in this case, the embarrassment is fatal. Five stars of utter shame.
"Dance for a Winter Moon" is heartbreaking, even when you know exactly what's coming. There is a strong sense of foreshadowing and inevitability, and you'll find that you were right all-along about what was going to happen. Still, the emotional impact is gut-wrenching. And getting there is half the fun. Read this paragraph and tell me you aren't going to enjoy the horrid ride to the bitter end:
The night had given up its pretence of glamour and beauty, its tinsel tricks of moonbeam and sentimental star glow. Little flurries of frost or dirty snow scudded in the air, as if the firmament was swollen with their filth and they dropped like lice from an old mattress. She remembered her father pulling away the roof slats and painted wooden fascias at their home in England. They were rotten and stinking, riddled with the nests of vermin and choked with chewed paper and scraggy tufts of wool. The churning escape of the creatures had sent ti all floating down like ash into her hair. Scrape away the cheap veneer, the inky indigo of the sky and it would peel and flake like chewed wood or wallpaper to root out the hiding places of the stars and reveal them in all their monstrosity and malevolence."
The title of the next story, "A Blue Dish of Figs," evokes the image of a carefully-crafted still-life painting that contains far more symbolic meaning than its banal subject matter. One can say the same of the protagonist and her life. It is crude and shapeless, awaiting the touch of an artist's hand to add color and give life. That artist is a child who teaches hidden wisdom to her Teacher. Five stars for a story where pedantry is turned inside out and the inversion of the social order creates a passageway to meaning.
"Salammbô and the Zaïmph of Tanit" is a masterful tale in the decadent strain of Huysmans. Beauty is a fair mistress, but jealousy is more adamant. Like all good decadent tales, sumptuousness ends in nightmarish squalor. Five stars
"Dreams from the Apple Orchard" is a story of beautiful decay, of fissures in social unity (a theme that Insole revisits often), the beautiful, frightful interstices between the sanguine constructs of friendship and fruitfulness. Set in Eastern Europe right before WW II, this is a solemn foreshadowing of things to come. Brilliant and brutal. Five stars. I loved this story.
"Valerie," shows a world of mystique, beautiful and terrifying, in the lanes and hedges, the interstices; magical portals. What a darkly-beautiful, beautifully-dark story. I am reminded of Rikki Ducornet's The Jade Cabinet and The Fountains of Neptune, tonally speaking. Yet another shift!
It is in the lengthy denouement of "Valerie" that some aspects of the tale come into clear focus, while others are blurred. The effect is like looking through binoculars at a hazy distant landscape. The broad strokes may be beautiful, but on closer examination, there is rot beneath. But the rot holds it's own beauty. This was an amazing novella, and the only piece original to the collection. It is for good reason that it lends its title to the book. I found myself, again and again, revisiting my own childhood (though it was quite different from the narrator's experience, at least in terms of my family life - thankfully!) and the wonders of discovery. On further reflection, though, I thought "what if this is an unreliable narrator"? And the thought exploded in my head like a literary kaleidoscope! If true, this story gains multiple levels of meaning and emotional depth that I had not considered on my first read-through. The implications are staggering and left me intellectually dizzy, drunk on possibilities.
In the middle of the final story, "The Abdication of the Serpent," I admit, I asked where this story was headed, doubtful of its outcome. But by the end, the meandering labyrinth finally made sense. It's a murder-mystery undergirded by myth-building, and a coming-of-age, but not the age typically associated with such stories. It is a coming-of-age for a character that has reached old age. It is, in summation, a fine, fine story. One that deserves a reread and will stick in my head for some time, especially for the "release" of the ending, which opens up a sea of vistas and gently pushes the reader's ship out into the soft waves - a fitting end to the book, which felt like a new beginning.
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