Monday, March 19, 2018

"The Pier Falls" by Mark Haddon

In 2015, we were on vacation in London and had a list of plays we wanted to see. For me, topping the list was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Alas, we both came down with severe colds and had to some serious damage to our planned itinerary. We missed the play. I had to make-do with reading the book, and I was blown away by how good it was. We were able to see the play in 2017 at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, and it was marvelous.

I had rather high expectations when I started reading Haddon’s The Pier Falls, a collection of nine short stories. The first and title story took less than 20 minutes to read. It blew right through my expectations.

The story is an account of a pier collapse at a seaside resort city like Brighton. It’s told in the present tense, almost minute-by-minute, giving it the sense of watching a documentary film unfold in horrifying detail. It’s mesmerizing.

Could the remaining stories be as good? The answer was yes. They’re different, very different, but the stories are excellent.

“The Island” seems like a story from Greek mythology. A princess helps a soon-to-be-sacrificed man escape and sees her brother killed. She finds herself abandoned on an island, focused solely on survival. “Bunny” tells the story of a 500+-pound man, whose life has become increasingly circumscribed he meets Leah. Their meeting and developing relationship becomes a story of mutual dependence – up to a point.

In “Wodwo,” an upper-middle-class family is preparing for its annual Christmas dinner, when they’re interrupted by a knock on the terrace door. It’s a black man, looking homeless, and he asks to be invited in. Once inside, he enjoys a hot drink and then lays a shotgun on the table. A gun also plays a role in “The Gun,” the story of two boys who find a handgun and know they have to try it. The reader thinks he knows where this story is going, and he is dead wrong.

“The Woodpecker and the Wolf” concerns a group of astronauts stranded on a planet like Mars. A relief ship is on its way, but it is not likely to make in time to save their lives. In “Breathe,” a woman walks away from a career upset and the end of a romantic relationship to go home to England, and finds her mother living like a homeless squatter.

Mark Haddon
In “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear,” a group of British explorers are trying to find a lost expedition, only to find themselves lost and the situation dire. In the final story, “The Weir,” a man saves a woman from drowning herself, but the question is which one of them was really drowning.

Haddon is the author of several novels and young adult novels, including A Spot of Bother (2007) and The Red House (2013). He is also an artist. He blogs under his own name.

The stories of The Pier Falls are gripping, sometimes shocking, and always fascinating. What they share in common is what happens in people’s lives when the unexpected or disastrous occurs. The cover blurbs include words like “gripping,” “compelling,” “superb,” and “brilliant,” but as good as they are they don’t do these stories justice.


Top photo by Sean Pierce via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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