Filler content with somnambulists

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35 back in 2003:-

SLEEPWALKERS
Marion Arnott
Elastic Press pb, 204pp, £6.00
reviewed by Peter Tennant

Arnott is a relatively new writer who has made a very real impact in a short time, scooping up awards and honourable mentions like they’re going out of fashion, and all of it much deserved. This latest offering from Norwich based Elastic Press collects together eleven of her stories, touching on themes of misogyny, child abuse and man’s inhumanity to man, horrors of the everyday that Arnott distils down and renders tangible with the precision and skill of a master of the short form.

The collection opens with perhaps her best known story, ‘Prussian Snowdrops’, originally published in TTA’s sister publication Crimewave, which is set against the backdrop of Hitler’s Germany and has an inquisitive newshound investigating what happened to the inmates of an asylum in the country, a chilling secret that plunges him into the depths of an ethical dilemma. Anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th Century history will of course realise exactly where this story is going, but Arnott’s gift is in the way she makes situations that seem familiar and predictable appear hideously unreal, developing them with a rigour that brings out even more of the latent horror. The problem becomes for the reader, as for her protagonist Karl, not so much a matter of knowledge as what is to be done with this terrible information. Karl is led to accept that there are more vital issues in life than his career, but also to the realisation that he simply does not have the courage to back up his convictions, and we are thrown back on our own resources, left high and dry and wondering how we would act if the same thing happened to us. This is a beautifully crafted story, one that engages both the emotions and the intellect, while refusing the reader comfort from either.

‘Fortune’s Favourite’ shares a similar milieu but is an altogether slighter piece, with Norwicki blessing his luck all the time while never realising what soon becomes apparent to the reader, that the train he is on is bound to a concentration camp, the quality of the writing complemented by the acid irony of the end. A similar feeling informs ‘A Small Miracle’, in which a woman recovers from what was thought to be a terminal illness, only for her husband to realise that she is a completely changed person, someone who now accepts the tents of a faith she has rejected all her life, calling into question the exact nature of this miraculous recovery and the bargains that people make with providence.

At forty pages ‘Dollface’ is the longest story in the collection and one of the most impressive. Charlie is distraught at the imminent death of the father who has looked after him ever since his mother walked out on them many years ago and from whom he has inherited many of his own misogynistic attitudes. He finds solace in an internet chatroom with the enigmatic caller known only as Dollface, a person to whom he can reveal more of himself than ever before, though as she draws him out Charlie is led to question his memories of the past and all that he thinks of as right and true. It soon becomes obvious where this is going, but such is Arnott’s skill at construction and giving her characters depth that this transparency is pushed into a siding as the reader is carried along on a rush of dark dreams, recovered memories and clues that can only add up in one way. The story is a subtle and powerful evocation of misogyny, and a terrible indictment of attitudes we all too often pay lip service to through simple thoughtlessness.

The title story ‘Sleepwalkers’ reads like a condensed version of Alice Hoffman’s novel Property Of, as the abused Anne-Marie finds redemption of a kind through the love of Ricki, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, two lost souls reaching out to each other in the night and doomed to fail. The grim ‘Princess’ attempts to get inside the mind of a child abuser and succeeds to deliver a chilling picture of aberrant psychology, a monster whose motives make sense entirely when taken on his own terms, while ‘Angel’ is the story of a woman trying to win the heart of a married man and refusing to face up to the reality that she is just being used, a bitter little threnody on the war of the sexes. ‘Yes’ is one of the few low points in the collection, as Mick the milkman receives poetic justice in payment for his sexist ways, a story that is perhaps too much a by the numbers revenge piece, too obviously rooted in wish fulfilment, with the depiction of Mick’s behaviour coming close to parody, and palls in comparison to the others.

From the worst to the finest with ‘Marbles’ (also first published in Crimewave), which is my personal favourite and yet another exercise in the masterly plot construction that is Arnott’s forte, with a middle-aged woman secretly terrorising the old man who has just moved into the street where she lives. At first our sympathies are entirely with the put upon Ken, but as the story progresses and more parts of the jigsaw slot into place the moral high ground shifts; we come to see that Miss Buchan is not simply mad, but that there are sound reasons for the way she acts, and perhaps there are those of us who applaud her behaviour. The skill and ease with which Arnott puts this story over complement the moral dilemmas that it addresses, and she tears your heart out with the very real pain of the people who come so dramatically and convincingly alive on the page.

‘Underground’ is the shortest story and also the slightest, a snapshot of a woman being abused by a man on a tube train and attempting to turn the tables on her molester but finding nothing other than futility in the act. Finally we have ‘Madeleine’ which puts a fictional spin on a famous court case, that of a Madeleine Hamilton Smith in 1857 accused of murdering her lover Emile L’Angelier, using it as a mirror to reflect double standards in the society of that day and perhaps our own also.

Arnott’s stories are not comfortable reading, perhaps especially for the male reader; nor should they be as the horrors she evokes and then dissects in such meticulous and panful detail are very real, issues that affect us all. She straddles the boundary between Horror and Crime fiction with ease, and her work should appeal to both sets of readers. This collection is one any serious lover of short fiction will want on their shelves and contains three of the finest examples of the form that I have seen in recent years.

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