Welcome to my first standalone review in AGES! I’d like to start doing these again, as I have so much more to say about the books I’ve read than the simple star ratings on Goodreads and my mini wrap-ups (when I remember to do them!). So this seems like a good habit to get into.
I’m starting with Michel Faber’s The Fahrenheit Twins because it’s a short story collection, making it a little easier for me to break down the things I liked and disliked. Faber is also a well-known author (famous for his novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin), so it’s interesting to look at his lesser-known works and a collection that gives you a taste of his style before heading to his longer stuff.
Let me start by saying that I knew going into this book that Faber writes some weird stuff. I like weird. Weird and dark is good. I am intensely intrigued by weird.
And, oh boy, are some of these stories weird. ‘Explaining Coconuts’ and ‘A Hole with Two Ends’ are very odd indeed, and not quite in the way that makes me happy. The first of these two, for example, I actually skipped through most of it, because it recounts a woman discussing, in great scientific detail, coconuts to a room full of men. Most of the scientific detail was lost on me, and I don’t particularly care to read a detailed scientific discussion of the coconut. I thought the greater intention of the story was lost in this, the tension diluted by the fact that I didn’t have the energy to plough my way through words I, quite frankly, didn’t understand.
The latter, I just didn’t get. I know, sometimes, that short stories don’t necessarily have some deeper meaning hidden between the words. Sometimes they just are what they are. But I genuinely did not see the point of this story. A husband and wife, having some personal trouble, driving back home, hit a cat, go chase down the cat to make sure it’s not badly hurt, she goes crazy to find this cat, he’s confused and just wants to get back to the car. I finished with the ultimate ‘WTF?’ feeling afterwards, because I failed to see why this story was at all relevant to … well, anything. Maybe I really did just miss the point.
Yet, there are other stories in the collection that also don’t seem to have much of a point to them that worked well for me. The first story, ‘The Safehouse’, turns very bizarre, but is compelling and contemplative long after the story is over. ‘The Eyes of the Soul’ and ‘Less Than Perfect’, are mildly forgettable, but are otherwise entertaining, one following a woman having a special new window fitted, the other about a young man who stops thieves at a supermarket and dreams he’s a secret agent.
My favourite story is towards the very end. ‘Vanilla-Bright like Eminem’ is a story of an American family on a coach vacation heading towards Inverness and in a single moment, the father, Don, has one of the happiest moments of his life. It is simple and beautiful, wrapping up in such a way that I was genuinely moved by it. Impressive, for one of the shortest stories in the collection. Succinct, quiet, it doesn’t try to do anything impressive in it’s telling of this time with a family.
‘Finesse’ and ‘All Black’ are very different, but equally intriguing. I liked the first for it’s almost sly question of What would you do? as a doctor is forced to perform life-saving surgery on a dictator. The latter’s allegorical interpretation of the keeping of secrets as all the lights go out (except some) as a father takes his daughter back to her mother after she meets his male, black lover for the first time is equally tender and brutal, giving all angles to a caustic life a child doesn’t see.
Two stories were completely unexpected, and not in a good way. One, I managed easily, if a little uncomfortably, as a man beats his girlfriend to death (‘Someone to Kiss it Better’), the other is so shocking, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it.
On the one hand, I do accept that writers can slip into the minds of people not themselves (which seems to be a core theme throughout this collection), as a way to try and understand experiences not their own and share that. I think that’s important. I do it myself. The key is making sure you balance your own curiosity with fact and someone’s true life experience. However, I felt jarred knowing that a man was writing about a woman going through such a serious case of post-natal depression, she does something truly horrific. I hold my hands up and admit that maybe I am being biased against the writer just because of their biological sex and that I’m being totally unfair. Perhaps he did have endless discussions with mothers in order to put this piece together, I don’t know. All I know is that this is a deeply unsettling (and triggering) story and I left it feeling uncomfortable for reasons beyond the story’s content.
I didn’t see the problem with this at all for ‘Swimming Lessons’, which features a mother bonding with her son at the local swimming pool after her latest recovery in rehab. It feels raw and tender as you come to understand how desperate she is, all the time.
There are several other stories, including the title piece, that I haven’t mentioned, but I’d like to get into what I wonder is at the heart of a lot of these stories, and that is the author’s explorations of ‘other people’.
Throughout, there are moments of stereotypicalness that can be a bit eyeball rolling. But that seems to be the point. The stay at home mother in the rough part of town grouching on all the crap she has to deal with being so poor. The spotty, unpopular kid working at the supermarket dreaming about being a spy. The greasy guy in the flat playing computer games all day. The dictator. The young man from an estate who drinks too much, gets loud and beats his girlfriend. Going into these stories, none of these characters feel unique – that is, they are what people think of when they see what I have written above.
What Faber does – to varying success – is try to look past these cliches to try and envision what the people are actually thinking or wanting. What motivates them, drives them, gives them the desire to go on? Do we even care? Should we care? Blending stories of realism with stories that feature the bizarre and fantastical, Faber opens a discussion about our own fantasies and their relation to the world outside. One story that works particularly well in flipping this on its head (in a mildly sentimental kind of way), is ‘Beyond Pain’, as a heavy metal drummer thinks he wants to travel Europe and be a star, but a migraine makes him rethink what he wants.
Overall, it is a solid collection of stories, and one that will definitely get you thinking both during and after you’ve finished reading it. A good one for discussion too, I think!
Will I be picking up any more Faber? Possibly… he cleverly mixes up the writing style throughout this collection, so he certainly knows what he’s doing with his words. I may pick up a secondhand copy if it’s on the shelf.
My copy was published in 2006 by Canongate.