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Love and loneliness - 'The Pier Falls'

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Collection features wide range of stylistic diversity

There are relatively few writers who are capable of displaying mastery of both the novel and the short story. Granted, a good writer is a good writer, but many simply prove more adept at one or the other.

And then there are some like Mark Haddon who can do it all.

Haddon's bibliography marks him as a writer of particularly diverse skills. His career began as a writer of books for children, but his 2003 debut novel 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' his first effort intended for adults - garnered significant critical and commercial success. He has written a pair of subsequent novels, but his latest offering is a collection of short fiction.

'The Pier Falls' (Doubleday, $26.95) features nine stories, an assemblage that runs the genre gamut. But while Haddon ranges widely in terms of the shapes and styles of these stories, the overall tone and the themes that are being explored wend and wind throughout the entire collection.

The book opens with the titular story. It's a stark and excruciatingly detailed recounting of a collapsing pier. As the minutes tick by, Haddon zooms in on isolated moments within the larger picture, offering snapshot portrayals of the tragic senselessness of it all all rendered with a clinical and matter-of-fact detachment. Periodic counts of both minutes and casualties prove a strong juxtaposition against the assorted agonies being suffered on all sides.

'The Woodpecker and the Wolf' takes us into the realm of science fiction. A team of astronauts is living on Mars, barely keeping themselves together in anticipation of their relief and return home. However, circumstances leave them to largely fend for themselves and things gradually, inexorably unravel. And one woman in particular is left to wonder whether her presence on this mission might have more to do with what isn't on Earth than with what is on Mars.

'The Gun' is a stunning and poignant look at one boy being forced to contemplate morality and mortality thanks to a friend's access to a firearm; the memories of the day haunt him throughout the rest of his days. 'The Island' is more of the historical fiction persuasion; a princess of ancient Greece has to come to terms with the dangerous isolation created by her own thoughtless decisions. It's a cautionary tale looking at the rarely-considered pitfalls associated with blindly following one's heart. And while 'Wodwo' introduces elements of the supernatural, it's much more a story about coming to terms with the consequences of our actions. Pride goeth before a fall; one rash choice leads to a year-long downward spiral for a man who once had it all.

'The Pier Falls' is a wide-ranging and wonderfully diverse collection. It's really a virtuoso performance from Haddon, whose constantly-shifting stylistic choices make every story a capable piece of standalone art. Any one of them, viewed on its own, would be an exquisite reading experience.

But it is when they are brought together, these disparate narratives, they bring forth a truer understanding of Haddon's thematic exploration of the darkness that exists just beneath the surface. They explore the sad shadows cast by love - the desperate need for it, the pain of its absence in a manner both genuine and gut-wrenching. And yet, even with the seemingly relentless darkness, Haddon finds ways to bring forth moments of hope. They are fleeting and often ephemeral, but their presence is felt nonetheless.

Haddon's characters seem trapped in an isolation of their own making. Even with others present family, friends, what have you their loneliness is inescapable. This despite a palpable yearning for that feeling of connection. Desire for some form of closeness is the foundational underpinning of every one of these stories. Thriller or history, supernatural or science fiction, these nine narratives all find their own paths into the dark and take us with them.

It's a remarkable collection, with every individual story achieving a level of impactful engagement that would make any writer proud. Each one is a gracefully-constructed reminder that Mark Haddon is a rare and incredible talent. From top to bottom, first word to last, 'The Pier Falls' is exceptional.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 May 2016 15:15

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