We might need to invent a new literary category just for this collection. ‘Surreal’ is the term that comes first to mind, but I don’t know how strictly it applies. It’s immediately clear that the stories are not set in the everyday universe that we all believe ourselves to inhabit, and although they have horror elements they are by no means straightforward horror stories, neither are they quite fairytales, although many of them draw on myths and fables and function as parables. What really unifies the collection is the region in which the stories take place, a landscape in which all distinction between hallucinations, dreams and reality is lost – the realm of Eraserhead, The Singing Detective, The Naked Lunch, Metamorphosis, Alice in Wonderland and the casebook of Oliver Sacks. In the 1960s we would probably have put their inspiration down to experiments with psychedelic drugs, but I doubt if there is any basis for this speculation. I think we simply have to accept them as the creations of a very unusual imagination.
The collection begins with a near re-telling of the story of Pygmalion. In this version a socially inept adolescent sculptor models his Galatea from clay, but in an idealised form, without orifices, and when life is breathed into her he mutilates her and literally rips her to pieces in his frenzied attempts at carnal possession. Sexual desire negates and displaces love and ultimately destroys the object of its passion. It’s a disturbing and memorable introduction to a collection that has much more to offer in a generally similar vein.
But the only real similarity between the stories is in their embodiment of a distorted and unpredictable reality in which the author is free to take us absolutely anywhere and do with us as she will. It’s an exciting and light-headed ride, constantly surprising and totally compelling.
Among the places that we visit are the harem of the title, where beautiful and deadly women wait to service their tongueless spouse, a small-holding where we encounter an unexpected version of the cabbage-patch doll, and a mini-world created by an incompetent God in his dusty basement. Once or twice we stop off in worlds less strange, and meet people very like ourselves, and this recognition and familiarity also surprises us.
Whiteley has been around as a writer for about the same length of time as Gold Dust Magazine (in which this review first appeared – founded 2004), and we have followed her career since the 2004 novella Mean, Mode, Median, in which Edward, the charismatic, Christ-like brother, seemingly destined to become the prophet of some great new system of thought that will save a self-harming humanity from itself, is brought down by the jealous scheming of his calculating and ruthless sister Anna. This very unusual and original debut was followed two years later by Three Things About Me, a comic excursion into the shoddy world of ‘customer service representatives’, following the day-to-day lives of a new bunch of recruits and their cliché-spouting terminally insincere trainer. After a further two-year gap came Whiteley’s third offering, Light Reading, which introduced Lena and Pru, two very engaging bored RAF wives whose odd hobby of collecting suicide notes leads them into an often hilarious and sometimes very dark adventure investigating suspicious deaths in the Devonshire seaside care home where retired actress Crystal Tynee took her final curtain-call.
All these works are original, highly accomplished and very different to one another, but throughout the time that she has been active as a novelist Whiteley has continued to produce short stories, entering them in competitions, placing them on writing sites and having them published in magazines, anthologies and newspapers; and it is perhaps in the variety and richness of her work as a short story writer that her greatest talent lies. This collection is a major treat for lovers of the form; they are elegantly constructed, full of striking images, and brimming with novelty, ingenuity and playful use of language. This is someone who has really mastered her art performing at the peak of her powers. Definitely not to be missed.
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