Book review: ‘The Pier Falls’ by Mark Haddon (2016)

“I wish this story had a happier ending” one of the narrators in this new short story collection sighs. Having shot to literary fame on the back of the ultimate optimism of his hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, it seems Mark Haddon is all out of happy endings. The millions enthralled by that fiendishly clever modern fable may be surprised by the unremittingly morbid nature of this skilfully assembled and tonally consistent anthology of death and desolation.

The award-winning titular story is a vividly evoked account of a tragedy at a beachside town in the 1970s which eventually claims dozens of lives. Marked with a restrained tone and sustained mood of eerie calm, it is classically beautiful even in its depiction of smashed bones protruding from skin and drowned bodies disappearing beneath the raging water.

Another standout, ‘Wodwo’, hits similar aesthetic heights, etching out the various arrivals of family members at a picturesque English Christmas, where fallen snow “blots and softens the top of every object like icing on a plum pudding”. Internecine rivalries and long-held acrimonies bubble beneath the surface in a finely detailed portrait of a somewhat tense but generally unremarkable family gathering.

The story then pivots seamlessly into something far darker as the revelry is interrupted by a stranger with a gun, who issues a challenge to restless alpha male Gavin a la the Green knight to Sir Gawain. The surreal incident throws his life into chaos over the ensuing year as he throws away his career and relationship and descends into isolation, codeine addiction and homelessness.

Here, Haddon achieves something that is not quite magic realism, but an inspired,
disquieting blend of dirty realism around a mythical catalyst event, with convincing psychological detail used to render an extraordinary story palpably real.

Other stories depart from the here and now, only to find more emotional desolation; one tale sees an Athenian princess abandoned on an island, elsewhere a failed mission to Mars turns into a mass suicide.

Throughout, Haddon proves a heady stylist alive to moments of beauty even in the midst of despair. When a depressed man comes across a woman attempting suicide on a morning walk with his dogs, he records her jump from the edge of a weir with grimly poetic panache: “It is both more and less real than anything he has ever seen…Her blonde hair rises like a candle flame”.

‘Bunny’ is similarly dark, focusing on a massively overweight man who has dropped out of society, filling his days with trash TV and video games. He meets Leah. Like many of the characters here, she is so deep in a rut she has forgotten what sunlight looks like. She seems to have missed her chance to escape a dead-end town and abusive relationships, feeling “there was comfort in being hurt in the old, familiar ways”. She starts to act as a carer for Bunny; they bond over their cruel mothers and disappointing lives. But the equilibrium of their relationship proves tragically fragile.

As with ‘Wodwo’, both ‘The Island’ and ‘The Gun’ show an abiding interest in the mechanics and physicality of violence, how shooting a gun blows someone back, the particular spatter of blood. The former sees two boys making a formative trip out into the woods with a weapon while the latter recounts the princess’ grisly meeting with Islanders with stomach-churning exactitude.

Equally queasy-making is ‘Breathe’ where Carol returns home from America to find her elderly mother living in a derelict state after her husband died. The daughter’s sudden return and involvement in cleaning up her mother’s filthy house angers Robyn, the sister that remained local when Carol moved overseas, presumed never to be seen again.

Far too many contemporary short stories are bound by ennui and lack urgency. The Pier Falls presents an action-packed, unpredictable antidote to this malaise. Every story here has the power to give the reader a jolt, with Haddon’s pristine and stately prose only heightening the power of each violent upheaval.

Whether in a council estate, adrift in deep space or stalked by demons ripped from ancient mythology, these people are all hopelessly alone, hunted by the inevitability and randomness of death.

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