Fragile Things is a collection of twenty seven of Neil Gaiman’s short stories and poems. I think I’m right in saying that all of them bar The Monarch of the Glen were previously printed or published elsewhere, in various anthologies or magazines etc. At over 400 pages it’s quite long for a short story collection, although it also contains an introduction which gives a brief explanation about where each piece was originally published, and how it came to be written.
I hadn’t read any Neil Gaiman before, although he’d been on my radar because I’ve seen various talks and interviews with him, and I’m always drawn to his book covers. I was a little bit surprised when I started reading his short stories, because I’d sort of expected his writing to be better. That sounds awful and I don’t necessarily mean it in that way, but perhaps it would be clearer if I say that I expected his writing to be a little more refined perhaps, considering he’s such a well-known and popular author. I realise I’m probably digging myself into a hole here and I’m not quite sure how to get out of it, but I really don’t mean this in as negative a way as it probably sounds. I just get the impression from reading his work that some of it’s a bit hurried, or the word choices are kind of slapdash. I only say this because there were a couple of occasions when I felt jarred or pulled out of a sentence because there was some clumsy word repetition which could probably have been avoided with a bit more careful thought and editing.
Having said that (and don’t hate me for it), Neil Gaiman is also capable of some really lovely writing. This paragraph in his introduction is a clear example, and a passage that I particularly enjoyed:
Stories, like people and butterflies and songbird’s eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas – abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.
Twenty seven is a lot of pieces to be included in a collection of ‘Short Fiction and Wonders’. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a collection so big which only contains work by a single author. In a way, I feel like perhaps it was too big for its type. I enjoyed reading the stories, but after a while they all started to run into each other in my head, and looking back at it now I’m finding it hard to tell them apart from each other or to recall what happened in them. The introduction was certainly useful as a point of reference for each story, but maybe it would have benefitted more from containing fewer pieces. I wasn’t too keen on any of the poems and I felt they didn’t really add to the collection, so maybe it would have been better to release the poems in a separate collection so that both were a little more condensed and the stories could have received greater attention.
Due to the large volume of stories in this collection there are few that I remember distinctly, and of those few it’s sometimes hard to match the names to the plot points I remember. Of the few which have stuck in my mind, the story which I remember with the greatest level of detail is also, unsurprisingly, the most gruesome, and one which actually made me feel rather squeamish. It was called Feeders and Eaters and is a really grisly story about a little old lady who likes to eat from animals while they’re still alive, and has a truly manky reveal at the end. Just thinking about it now is making me feel rather queasy, as it created such a strong visual image which I can’t for the life of me get out of my head now. Bleargh! I also remember Sunbird, which is a story about members of an Epicurean Club whose aim is to sample every species of animal. Again, it has some vivid visual description, and a host of rather bizarre characters. (I’m not sure how much it says about me if both of the stories I remember most clearly are about eating!) The final piece I want to mention is The Monarch of the Glen. It’s the last story in the collection and is also the longest. It features the character Shadow, who I believe appeared in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’ve not read American Gods, and for some reason (I think based on hearing Neil Gaiman talk about the character) I was expecting Shadow to be a dog! I’ve no idea where I got this from, and it’s obviously wrong. I was pretty confused for most of the story though, but that’s my own silly fault. I’m still not entirely sure what was happening some of the time, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to be familiar with the character of Shadow beforehand, but I expect the story will be a bit clearer if you’ve read American Gods beforehand.
I did enjoy reading Fragile Things, I like dipping in and out of short story collections and this was certainly a meaty one to get my teeth into. I’m intrigued to try some of Neil Gaiman’s longer fiction now though, as I think I’ll probably prefer it more. Some of the short stories were a tad forgettable, so I want to see how he works at holding my interest for a substantially longer piece. I did enjoy his style and tone of writing though, and I can see why he is so popular. I already have a copy of Stardust and I really enjoyed the film, so I expect that will be my next foray into Mr Gaiman’s work.
See previous Book review featuring Shadow Magic by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett.