The Dark-Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North by Sjon Hodgkinson and Ten Hodgkinson (editors)

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The Dark-Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North by Sjon Hodgkinson and Ten Hodgkinson (editors)

Category: Anthologies
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An unfortunately patchy collection of stories from our European far North, that almost begrudgingly actually takes us there.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781782273820

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A compilation like this should be nigh on brilliant. It's not one author's best short works, it's that of a dozen. It's not from one snapshot in time, as some were written the year of publication and some in the 1960s. It's not from one tiny patch of author's desk or one set of laptop keys, but from the entire Nordic world, whether that be urban Scandinavia, the Faroes and other island groups, or Greenland. That is a world that's changing – as the Greenland-born author now living in Brooklyn, and the Iraqi blood on these pages, testify. It's a world where new roads and new building works mean a family living on the edge of the forest at the beginning of the story are being surrounded by other life by the end, and with the influence of centuries of folklore featured, a lot more than that changes – sometimes it seems to be even the characters' species…

The people behind this book should also know what they're doing where Nordic literature is concerned – one editor was unknown by me but is a fiction specialist and award judge, and Sjon is the embodiment of modern Icelandic writing and literary appreciation. The publishers have also been responsible for giving us English speakers the likes of Dorthe Nors, who features early here, as the book skips gleefully from Denmark to Sweden and back before it makes its more exotic journeys. But those early tales are not exactly domestic – a young lad encounters a spooky tragedy on a home-made raft that certainly unsettles, and where the family group isn't what it seems, you get the likes of a man stuck both in a frustrating marriage and in a deer hunter's hide with a broken leg and no likely chance of being found.

But the book seems all too hellbent on proving me wrong as to the quality. Some pieces really are wilfully unenjoyable, and offer us weirdly fragmented glimpses of darkness for little rhyme or reason (there are three instances here), or darkness that at least has some merit in amongst its lack of joy (the title story, and the older 'The Dogs of Thessaloniki'). You're quickly reminded of how Sjon has been called a very Marmite writer, although I certainly found something in his last novel to entertain.

But my disengagement with this book could not be laid entirely at the editors' feet, regardless. It's that change I talked about that hindered me – the authors here are too keen on not providing the postcard from their life, a snapshot of their world, and seem to want too much to move on. They have every right to concern themselves with whatever they want, but very little here from, say, Finland, needs to have been set in Finland (if indeed it is), and if I came for a smorgasbord of Scandinavian and Nordic tastes, I came away with very little of those flavours indeed. I'm sure it's what I read Tim Parks discuss once, where the global audience for world's literature has taken all the domesticity out of modern fiction, and given it all an international, placeless feel, the current equivalent of a mid-Atlantic twang.

Greenland gives us a glimpse of national costume, but little else we could only have had from there, in linked tales of growing up with a drunken mother, while the other character from that locale speeds her way to North America when her partner dies. A story from the Faroes a hundred years ago is added to by lengthy footnotes, as if fiction cannot survive on such an insular territory where everybody still remembers everybody else's business for a long time.

Don't get me wrong, there are pieces here I certainly will remember – the lad on his raft for one, and a further, teenaged boy witnessing his inability to get his head round adult impulses and urges. There's a great, short and very creepy encounter with a man running that you will find making laps in your mind for ages, and a short story that actually, finally, epitomises and encounters the very change I have been bewailing – when an elderly Icelandic woman goes shopping for that unlikely Christmas foodstuff, an avocado. This book became for me something I don't think it was intended to be – a lament for a landscape and its people increasingly looking outward, and not down to the soil beneath its feet. Iceland and the countries surrounding her are unmoored, and adrift in that mid-Atlantic space, and that's a shame.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

By their nature, the short stories in Winter Tales by Kenneth Steven feel particularly Arctic at times.

Buy The Dark-Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North by Sjon Hodgkinson and Ten Hodgkinson (editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Dark-Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North by Sjon Hodgkinson and Ten Hodgkinson (editors) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Dark-Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North by Sjon Hodgkinson and Ten Hodgkinson (editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Dark-Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North by Sjon Hodgkinson and Ten Hodgkinson (editors) at Amazon.com.


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