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‘The Diving Pool: Three Novellas’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read.  Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future.  I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable.  This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’  This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
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The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.  They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008.  As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’.  Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence.  Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool.  I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well.  I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all.  I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’  She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower.  I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’  The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions.  The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’

‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant.  It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable.  At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband.  I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around.  In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all.  They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’  When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long.  The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’  The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.

‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into.  At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on.  In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’  The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on.  The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started.  There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it…  It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’  She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound.  It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb.  But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague.   The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin…  I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’

Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist.  Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is.  The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first.  The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock.  It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.

The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid.  In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here.  I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’  There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end.  Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.

There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution.  Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date.  There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted.  Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.

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‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser ****

I love traditional ghost stories, but was drawn to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story precisely because it sounded unexpected.  I am used to cold, dark, usually Western European settings in ghost stories, where atmosphere is built, and the sinister creeps into the scenes which we expect.  De Kretser’s novel, instead, is set during the springtime in Sydney, Australia.  Despite the quite low rating which the book has on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the story in Springtime, and enjoyed her novel The Rose Garden when I read it some years ago.  I therefore ordered a copy immediately.

Springtime is a neat little hardback, and coming in at just 85 pages, it can be read in one 9781760111212sitting.  There are several odd occurrences within it, but it is not a ghost story which harks to conventions of the genre.  Of de Kretser’s authorial decisions, Andrew Wilson writes: ‘… [she] undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules…  One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way de Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.’  It is described in its blurb as ‘rare, beguiling and brilliant’, three words which would draw me to read almost any novel.

Charlie and Frances, our protagonists, have moved from trendy Melbourne to more traditional Sydney, so that Frances can take up a position as a research fellow.  They make their journey with ‘an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis.  Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.’  Frances, rather than Charlie, is the focus throughout the story.  At the outset, de Kretser explores how her new surroundings make her feel: ‘She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring.  It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists.  Like the shifty sun, these distortions of scale disturbed.  Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, “I’m not young any more.”  How had that happened?  She was twenty-eight.’  As a character, I liked her immediately.  She is a ‘solitary, studious girl, whose life had taken place in books; at least four years of it had passed in the eighteenth century.’

We meet Frances when she is walking through her new neighbourhood.  Almost immediately, de Kretser makes subtle suggestions, planting seeds in the mind of her reader: ‘Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a little hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve.  There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.’  After she sees this woman for the first time, she does not stop doing so: ‘These partial visions, half-encounters, were repeated at intervals over weeks.’  This woman proves to be ‘as silent and white as her dog.’

In her story, de Kretser explores the differences, and rivalries, between Melbourne and Sydney.  In Frances’ new city, ‘… the streetscape was so weirdly old-fashioned.  Where were the hip, rusting-steel facades, Melbourne’s conjuring of post-industrial decay?  The decrepitude in their western suburb was real: boarded-up shops, cracked pavements, shabby terrace houses sagging behind stupendous trees.’  Some of the scenes which de Kretser sculpts are beautiful, and others stark and provocative: ‘Charlie gathered up Frances’s hair and balanced the knot on his palm.  At night they slept entwined like bare sheets.’  I loved her quite unusual descriptions: for instance, ‘They were thin eyes and surprisingly inky’, and ‘On the day Charlie left his wife, she had sent Frances an email that could still make Frances want to do unreasonable things: seize the breadknife and saw off her hair, eat stones.’  I also got a real sense of the natural world pushing against urbanisation in the story; de Kretser writes: ‘The river had turned into fierce, colourless glass.  It was a tyrant, punishing anyone who dared to look at it.  Small parrots shrieked with self-importance.  Their emerald broke savagely on the brassy sheen.’

I found Springtime rather an atmospheric read, with a strong sense of place.  De Kretser manages to make a setting which many readers would think of as idyllic, into something with dark edges.  It is told using rather short, unnamed chapters, which add to the sense of tension.  I found the story absorbing from the outset, and found myself really caring about Frances, who felt like a realistic character.  The crafting of the plot is tight, and it feels as though not a single sentence has been wasted.  It is a revealing novella, which has a lot of depth to it, and is ultimately quite powerful.  There is such attention to detail here, and I’m certain that Springtime is a story whose nuances I will be thinking about for months to come.

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‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Marie Sizun ****

Marie Sizun’s novella, Her Father’s Daughter, is the twentieth title on independent publisher Peirene Press’ list.  Part of the Fairy Tale series, it is described as ‘a taut and subtle family drama’, and has been translated from its original French by Adriana Hunter.  Her Father’s Daughter is Sizun’s debut work, written when she was 65, and first published in 2005.  The novella was longlisted for the prestigious Prix Femina.

9781908670281Her Father’s Daughter is set in a Paris in the grip of the Second World War.  A small girl named France is content, living solely with her mother in their apartment; that is, until her father returns from his prisoner of war camp in Germany.  At this point, ‘the mother shifts her devotion to her husband.  The girl realizes that she must win over her father to recover her position in the family.  She reveals a secret that will change their lives.’  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes that here, Sizun presents ‘a rare examination of the bonds and boundaries between father and daughter.’

An omniscient perspective has been used throughout, in which each member of the family is referred to largely using the title of their familial position, and their relation to France.  France, for instance, is just ‘the girl’ for the majority of the book, and we also become acquainted with her ‘the mother’, ‘the father’, and ‘the grandmother’.  Of the decision to largely omit given names, Sizun writes: ‘But no one remembers now [that the little girl is called France]…  They just call her “the child”, that’s enough.  As for calling her name to summon her, to make her come back, that never happens: the child is always there, close by, under her mother’s feet, or consumed with waiting for her.’

The novella begins as France hears a radio announcement, in which her father’s position in the camp is lamented by her mother.  At this point, something shifts for the little girl: ‘She would normally be enjoying this peaceful moment spent with her mother, in the small kitchen warmed by the heat of her ironing.  But right there, in what her mother said, in those words, something loomed before her, something quite new.’ At this point, Sizun goes on to say: ‘And it’s this secret, intimate world, their world for just the two of them, that the child can suddenly feel slipping away.’

Given that France is just four-and-a-half years old, she has no memory whatsoever of her father; her only points of reference are the photographs dotted around their apartment.  Of fathers, and France’s opinion of them, Sizun writes: ‘Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind.  Or else they’re dead, distant, weak, and much less interesting than their daughters and their sons, who are brimming with courage, spirit and good looks.’

When her parents are first reunited, after rather a traumatic journey, to see her father in the Paris hospital he is being treated in, France soon realises that she has been overlooked: ‘How long will this performance last?  The child now feels as if time, which went by so swiftly earlier, has stopped, as if she’s been here for hours, sitting on the end of this bed.  She’s been forgotten.  They don’t see her.  She’s disappeared.  She’s not in this world.’  When he returns home, it soon becomes clear that her father’s temperament is tumultuous, and unsteady: ‘His words are always rather knowing, but never the same: gentle one minute, abrupt the next, tender with the mother one minute, formal with the child the next.  And then suddenly aggressive.  Brutal.  Violent.’  After a while has passed, the family dynamics begin to shift beyond France’s comprehension: ‘The child may now have a father but, on the other hand, she might as well no longer have a mother.  Because as if by magic her mother is reduced to being a docile wife to her husband, his sweetheart, his servant.’

The structure of Her Father’s Daughter, which uses short, unmarked chapters, works well.  The prose, which is relatively spare, but poetic for the most part, makes the story a highly immersive one.  Her Father’s Daughter is easy to read, but there is a brooding, unsettling feeling which infuses the whole.  Sizun is entirely revealing about the complexities embedded in relationships.  Powerful examinations of family are present throughout the novella, along with musings about what it really means to know someone.  Even though her protagonist is so young, this is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, where very adult situations are interpreted through the eyes of a child, who has no choice but to learn a great deal about her family, and about herself.

Sizun is a searingly perceptive author, who demonstrates such understanding of her young protagonist.  Her Father’s Daughter is an incredibly human novella, which has been masterfully crafted; it is difficult, in many ways, to believe that it is a debut work, so polished does it feel.  The novella is well situated historically, and is highly thought-provoking.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

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‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss ****

I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall.  The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.51uqxbrcmll-_sx324_bo1204203200_1

It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history.  They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’.  Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life.  Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’.  The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.

I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph.  The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘They bring her out.  Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light.  The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet.  There will be more stones, before the end.’  As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.

Ghost Wall is highly sensual.  As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts.  Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner.  In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now.  The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’  This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing…  Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’

Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety.  When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own.  How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?’  As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing.  She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated.  Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.

Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one.  I have never read anything quite like it before.  The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.

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Fairlight Moderns: Emma Timpany and Sophie van Llewyn

I published reviews of three of the Fairlight Moderns novellas recently, and having now read the last two in the series of five, thought that I would post reviews of these too.

Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany **** 9781912054480
In Travelling in the Dark, Emma Timpany’s protagonist, Sarah, is travelling back to her native New Zealand from her home in England, accompanied by her young son.  Her husband has recently left her, and she is making the journey in order to show her son where she spent her own childhood, and to meet an old friend with whom she has a lot of history.

Travelling in the Dark begins in such a vivid manner, in prose which feels at once simplistic and engaging: ‘Sarah is on an aeroplane, crossing the night sky.  Her hands are folded in her lap.  Outside the window there is darkness.  She could slide the small, white window blind down, close out the night, but somehow she cannot bring herself to make this one small act.  The sense that she sometimes gets, that she must keep watching or she’ll miss something of importance, is intense, though she cannot see anything beyond the veil of ice crystals.  No stars, no satellites.  No planets.  No moon.  No radiant light from some far city.’  As one can tell from this snippet, Timpany’s descriptions are often quite lovely, particularly when she gives her attention to the natural world.

Every other chapter, which is interspersed between details of Sarah’s present day journey, are vignettes set during her childhood.  Such a sense of place and character can be found throughout Travelling in the Dark, and I so enjoyed Timpany’s writing that I am now waiting eagerly for her next publication.
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn ****
9781912054305Bottled Goods is Sophie van Llewyn’s first piece of ‘long fiction’.  This novella begins in the Communist Romania of the 1960s, where, in the first scene, protagonist Alina is taken on a roadtrip with her cousins and Aunt Theresa.  Short chapters ensue, some of which are told using the voice of Alina, and others which use an omniscient narrator.  A few chapters consist largely of lists.

From the outset, Bottled Goods is vivid in its descriptions, and culturally and historically fascinating.  Van Llewyn does incredibly well to put across the terror and strength of the regime in such a succinct yet harrowing manner.  She demonstrates how quickly things escalated in the regime, and how far-reaching its effect was upon every Romanian citizen.  The use of magical realism works very well too, particularly given the point at which it is introduced; it is used in quite a serious way, so does not tend to lighten the tone of the novella at all, but it does make one think.  Van Llewyn’s blending of realism with the element of magical realism is rather inventive, and certainly makes for a strange, quirky, and memorable novella.

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Fairlight Novellas

A wonderful, and relatively new, publishing company has come to my attention of late, after publishing five interesting novellas set all over the world.  I have read three of the currently published, and wonderfully designed, five to date, and thought that I would collect my reviews together here.
There Are Things I Know by Karen B. Golightly ****
‘Eight year old Pepper sees the world a little differently from most people.
One day, during a school field trip, Pepper is kidnapped by a stranger and driven to rural Arkansas. The man, who calls himself ‘Uncle Dan’, claims that Pepper’s mother has died and they are to live together from now on – but the boy isn’t convinced.
Pepper always found it hard to figure out when people are lying, but he’s absolutely certain his mother is alive, and he’s going to find her…’

There Are Things I Know is an intelligent, well-wrought novella, which deals with the abduction of a young boy, and is narrated from his perspective.  The narrator, who goes by the nickname of Pepper, is naive at first, feeling trusting toward ‘Uncle Dan’, who calls himself a relative.  As time goes on, however, he begins to learn that things are not as they seem, and that ‘Uncle Dan’ has nothing to do with his family.  Pepper is an entirely believable character, with a lot of depth, who I felt so much empathy for.  The tension which is built here is great, and I read it in one sitting, loath as I was to put it down.

The Driveway Has Two Sides by Sara Marchant **** 38720247
On an East Coast island, full of tall pine moaning with sea gusts, Delilah moves into a cottage by the shore. The neighbours gossip as they watch her clean, black hair tied back in a white rubber band. They don’t like it when she plants a garden out front – orange red carpinus caroliniana and silvery blue hosta. Very unusual, they whisper.  Across the driveway lives a man who never goes out. Delilah knows he’s watching her too and she likes the look of him, but perhaps life is too complicated already…

Sara Marchant’s core idea in her novella, The Driveway Has Two Sides, really intrigued me, and I couldn’t wait to read it. I enjoyed Marchant’s writing a lot; there were some really lovely turns of phrase here, and the characters felt utterly realistic. Whilst not a novella in which a great deal happens – it is largely about relationships and gardening, which do make for an interesting combination – I found it highly compelling.
38720284Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner ****
Top neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton is morbidly obese.  He doesn’t mind the sweats, the sleep apnoea, or the fact that he can no longer see certain parts of his anatomy. Even the sniggers that come from his registrars, behind what they think are closed doors, won’t make him change. He is also inured to his wife’s scorn as their marriage slowly disintegrates.  But when mistakes are made and the clinical director starts asking questions, Nicholas knows that things are coming to a head…

I am really enjoying these thoughtfully curated, and rather unusual, Fairlight Books novellas. I did not remind myself of the synopsis of this one before I began to read, and was rather surprised at times by the multilayered story which awaited me. Here, Ferner presents an intimate portrait of a husband and wife, and the ways in which their relationship has shifted since the beginning of their marriage. I found Inside the Bone Box incredibly well written, and wholly absorbing.

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