‘While this is a robbery …’ the thief said. His accent was thick and British, the kind that makes North Americans feel slightly ashamed. He flicked his head and a cloud of plaster dust swept into the air. ‘I demand only one thing from each of you and it is this: the item currently in your possession which holds the most sentimental value.’
Why I read it
I was going through my shelves for the (now completed) #GreatBookCullOf2018 and couldn’t remember anything about this book, apart that it was a present from J’s sister a while back – so, a good candidate for a re-read.
What it’s about
This is the kind of book that creates its own aura before you open it, thanks to its embossed linen cover, intriguing slimness and cut-out-silhouette illustrations that evoke old copies of Hans Christian Andersen stories. The blurb on the back promises a ‘weird and wonderful modern fable’ involving a mysterious thief who sets into motion strange events: ‘a tattoo comes to life, a husband turns into a snowman, a baby starts to shit money. And Stacey Hinterland discovers that she’s shrinking.’
Sounds sweet and wacky – except that behind all the fabulous events there is a dark core. Like the book Princess Bride there is adult pain suffused through the story: in particular, the problems the narrator and his wife are having in their relationship following the birth of their son.
It becomes apparent that the surreal happenings affecting each character (including the titular wife) are personalised, and are related to highly emotional issues in their lives. For example, a man whose proposal was rejected bumps into his ex-girlfriend who then literally rips his heart out of his chest as he watches – culminating in a high-speed chase. A woman who got a tattoo of a lion to celebrate leaving her boyfriend finds that the lion comes to life and starts chasing her. A couple who’ve lost several pregnancies discover it’s raining babies. And so on.
It would be nice and neat if things proceeded in the cliched manner: that the bizarre events are challenges that force the individuals to confront and overcome their failings and become better people, at which point their supernatural tortures cease. But that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Some punishments seem arbitrary and total (like the woman who wakes up made of candy, and whose husband immediately eats her). Others seem to have inflicted suffering, or benefit, or both, without any purpose (like the couple whose baby starts excreting cash, until the doctor tells them he must operate to stop it for the baby’s wellbeing, which they consent to, with the predicted outcome).
The thief, who started all this with his mysterious robbery, seems to be less a moral force for good and more of an arbitrary mischief-maker – which the author seems to acknowledge, given the fate he allows to be inflicted on the thief at the end.
So what is the moral? It’s not as straightforward as ‘good things happen to good people’ or ‘trials make us stronger’. Perhaps the best we can take from it is: we’ll all get challenged in various ways in our life, and sometimes we will have a chance to respond constructively and make things better, and other times we either won’t or can’t – and sometimes things will proceed for better or worse completely independently of any action we take anyway.
That’s either very glum or very liberating, and I’m not sure which.
This book is, however, very definitely a beautifully-written work, dense with difficult emotions, and like a masterclass in economical writing.
This book was mostly read on the back balcony.