Dr Ian Hocking
British author Tom Saunders was once an engineer, a school caretaker, a musician, a seller of guitars and records, and, not insignificantly, a graduate of the UEA’s Creative Writing programme under Sir Malcolm Bradbury. From these experiences and with this pedigree comes the eclectic Brother, What Strange Place is This?, his debut collection of short fiction.
This book is a kaleidoscope with tumbling pieces as diverse as a shipwrecked Spaniard, a philosopher, and a vagrant. For the most part, a Saunders character finds himself coping as a stranger in a foreign land, if not physically – a trussed Africa-based reporter awaiting execution in ‘Head’ – then spiritually – a father belittled by his family in ‘Aerobatics’. The rich backcloths of Havana, Vienna, and Germany turn up the volume on these unbalanced, often exiled characters, as though Saunders, twisting the kaleidoscope, is not satisfied with their intrinsic alienation.
One is tempted to view Saunders as a musician first and a writer second because the stories sing like fine crystal. This is not to say that a given tale lacks development, or character, or plot. ‘The Prospect of Home’, for example, is a wonderful piece that sees two young men, Gabriel and Francis, embark upon a mission to ‘disappear’ a political dissident of their mutual acquaintance. The story is electrically charged and the characters real: two unwilling, yet complicit murderers, without whom the dictatorships and informer-led societies would collapse into peace. And yet the most powerful element of this story is the music that plays beneath it.
Though there are no poetic pieces in this collection, the reader will observe that Saunders cannot let his stories go undernourished in poetic terms. A horse does not merely whinny, it ‘rolls the yellow of an eye and bares its teeth in the style of a bad Hamlet’ . A town is not just economically depressed, rather ‘The big brass band of the easy buck had packed up and left forty years ago’. This is dense writing. At its best, he brings a pitch-perfect clarity to his thoughts, and thus to his readers’. But the writing is occasionally inscrutable. My perplexity at ‘Not For What You Are’, the somewhat turgid confession of a man who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, is doubtless a combination of the high-octane prose and my ignorance of this figure (Google now informs me he was a Pre-Raphaelite painter). Indeed, Saunders will often demand a certain intelligence and world-weariness on the part of the reader in order that the unwritten part of his stories (sometimes the greater part) find its home. On occasion – such as the brief ‘Sweetwater Gas and Unicorn’ – the reader is left with a sense of frustration that a beautiful something has come and gone in an instant, whetting one’s appetite without the follow-up of a good feed.
The title story, ‘Brother…’, describes the slow death of a composer, Griffin Curzon, who in 1913 attempts a suicide, survives, and is interned in a sanatorium. We bear witness to Griffin’s physical and metaphorical descent through the eyes of his brother, an inventor called Alaric. Alaric receives the occasional letter from his Griffin, one of which reads:
Brother, What strange place is this? My keepers carried me here like a Samson in chains. A great man graced my room today and peered hard into my face as if he aspired to read in it some prophecy.
One is tempted to conclude that Saunders has adopted the role of this damaged composer as he writes his cryptic messages – all twenty-one of them – and slips them out under the door of the writer’s world to that of his reader. This analogy soon breaks, of course, because Saunders has not been driven mad by his inspection of the world. Saunders’s head is clear. Perhaps, then, Saunders is the man who graces the rooms of his characters, aspiring to read some prophecy, a stenographer to people in faraway places.
Either way, this fine collection should prove thought-provoking and sad, musical and enervating. A kaleidoscope of lives, twisted but bright, and a worthy debut.
[Editor’s note: Tom Saunders and Dr Ian Hocking are both published by the UKA Press]