The High Places by Fiona McFarlane

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The High Places by Fiona McFarlane

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Kate Jones
Reviewed by Kate Jones
Summary: This collection has some really beautiful writing, and some promising stories from a relatively new author.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 9871444776713

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This was the first time I had read anything by Fiona McFarlane, who had her first novel, The Night Guest published in 2014, to wide acclaim. I can see why she is hailed as an exciting new writer: her prose is beautifully crafted at times, and she conjures up some interesting and original characters. The first story in the collection, Exotic Animal Medicine, introduces a young female vet and her partner, who have just been married in secret, and is an engaging story from the beginning. The story has some good characters and some wonderful short descriptions; the beat of the trapped bees against glass that shook as the buses moved by. There feels a real connection to animals and nature throughout this story, having at certain points, even the viewpoint of the cat who is awaiting the vet's return.

The story is set in Cambridge, though the female character is originally from Australia, as McFarlane herself is, having spent some time living and studying in Cambridge. There is a definite Australian feel throughout the book, with many of the stories set there, though Art Appreciation feels like it is set in a British city. The location is immaterial as with most of the stories, it is the characters which drive the action, rather than the location. This story had a Maeve Binchy feel to me, and felt slightly old-fashioned, which gave it a nostalgic feel. In it, the central male character courts a young woman from his office with a view to marrying her, having learned he is to gain from his mother's recent lottery win. The tension builds up throughout the story, and again, the characters are developed well. I did, however, feel that it petered out a little at the end. It is quite a long short story at 30 pages, one of the longest in the collection, though I'd have to say that this book contains many stories longer than the average collection I have read: most stories are between 20-30 pages long.

One of my favourites, Unnecessary Gifts, is an unusual story set from the point of view of a father, relaying the events of an evening when his two sons go missing with a friend. McFarlane creates a tense, edge-of-the-seat feeling as she builds to an unexpected ending, and it is a clever way to speak the narrative through the father's eyes rather than the boys, I think, as the character openly admits he is intuiting some of what happened from bits of information pieced together, such as CCTV footage. I found myself dreading the ending, yet needing to know.

The stories have a wide scope, as I say, varying between continents and timings. Those Americans Falling from the Sky, for example, re-lives the second world war through the eyes of a young girl, and centres around her memories of the American pilots stationed nearby, as well as her feelings for her step-father. The title story, The High Places also has a nostalgic feel, and features a very religiously devout family living on a drought-ridden farm. I found this story a little uncomfortable and confusing, as I did Buttony, the shortest of the stories, which centres around a playground game in which a school teacher appears to lose control.

In all, I would say this is a nice collection of stories, varied in its differing tones and themes and settings, although I would also say that some of the stories build up well but don't always satisfy at the end.

If you like this collection, you might like The American Lover by Rose Tremain.

Buy The High Places by Fiona McFarlane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The High Places by Fiona McFarlane at

Buy The High Places by Fiona McFarlane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The High Places by Fiona McFarlane at


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