Caravan Thieves by Gerard Woodward

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Caravan Thieves by Gerard Woodward

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Clearly intended to be humourous and rooted in ideas of seriously comic potential, Woodward's short-stories are well told but often lack that fundamental element of a plot: an ending.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099474777

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Gerard Woodward is a much short-listed novelist & poet: the Whitbread First Novel Award (2001), Man Booker Prize (2004), T S Eliot Prize (2005). If it hasn't been already, I can well see this collection being equally short-listed for whatever the 'short-story' equivalent is. (Is there even a major prize for short stories?)

Sadly, I feel that the short-list is where it belongs – because whilst I found much to enjoy in Woodward's writing and his imagination, ultimately each and every story was a deeply unsatisfying read because it went nowhere.

In the worst cases I craved the power of a schoolmistress to hand the work back to the author with an encouraging remark about setting, or context, or 'the idea', but with an admonishment to go finish it.

That is the crux of my problem with this book. The temptation to say don't bother is overwhelming… but it wouldn't be an entirely fair assessment, simply because of those settings, contexts and ideas. On some levels it is a very enjoyable collection, I entered each tale full of optimism and was drawn into mundane worlds peopled by ordinary characters in the midst of lives of absurdity, misconception, infidelity and revenge. I never put it down mid-story. Sadly, on each occasion, I was brought short not by an ending, but a stopping, as though the author had either lost his way and didn't really care enough about finding it again – or as though he had deliberately led us into the cul-de-sac of the irresolvable, and then simply vanished leaving us thinking: so?

The jacket notes refer to Woodward's ability to transform English suburbia into scintillating idiosyncratic art. That sums it up. My reaction is much what it would be to art of that type. Bemusement. The feeling that either I am missing something - or that this is pretending to be far more clever than it is. Perhaps Woodward is trying to say something profound, and I just don't get it. More erudite readers may enjoy the subtleties, far more than I did.

What then, can I commend? Concepts and conceits. Some of the original notions are rich with potential:

· Rape the punningly titled lead story from which the collection takes its name, has a retired couple waking up in their rather nice new caravan to find that the Glenmore Caravan Park has disappeared and they have been left marooned in an eye-stretching sea of that yellow-flowered plant that isn't English… isn't mustard. No car. No tracks to indicate how they arrived there.

· The defrocked professor finding a job as a kitchen porter in his own former university, and a novel way of collecting poison.

· The worm farm

· The morbid fear of milk

· The commuter attacked on the street by inexplicable longbow men - or the significance of the claymore for the fat man.

Ideas which should have been drawn and stretched into some kind of significance beyond their simple comic existence, rather than being allowed to rest as tales of confusion and fear and violent fantasy, that ultimately simply collapse back into normality, in precisely the way that life might, but stories shouldn't.

As you'd expect of a poet, Woodward is a master of the unexpected image She looked like the FA Cup given human form or the overturned brave packed wheelie bins…spilling their rancid loads [which] looked that the fallen, disembowelled dead of a mediaeval battlefield, a tiny little body dissolving before our eyes, the limbs falling away like petals. Images so striking that they are out of place in these depths of unresolved mundanity. Perhaps that is the art. This contrast of language with that which it describes.

His observation of English suburbia is faultless: the detail of our obsessions with the Ford Mondeo or the Marauder caravan; the plausible notion that we go shopping on Boxing Day because we've run out of conversation; our ongoing belief that our infidelities remain secret simply because they're unchallenged; the obvious consumption and hidden debt. There are even occasional insights into the inexplicability of where we find love or sexual attraction – but Woodward is far better at betraying loneliness and dejection. There is little in the way of joy to be found in these pages; sex is always lacking in tenderness and curdled with brutality or failure. Long relationships seem to have been endured rather than enjoyed.

For a light, comic read, Caravan Thieves is strangely dispiriting.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoy short stories then we think that you appreciate The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam.

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