Belly Up: Stories
By Rita Bullwinkel
(A Strange Object; 225 pages; $14.95 paperback)
Is it a stretch to label San Francisco writer Rita Bullwinkel’s debut short story collection as “fantasy”? The selections do feature ghosts, zombies and a church with a giant mouth at its center, after all. Some tales, however, seem to contain no overtly supernatural content, just a lingering, disquieting sense of oddness.
Perhaps the question is moot. Suffice to say that the 17 stories exist at the borderlands of genre, reminiscent of the work of Kelly Link, Kit Reed and Angela Carter.
“Belly Up” provides a mix of snappy short-shorts and longer, more intricate pieces. No matter their length, sometimes the meanings of the stories remain inscrutable at the end.
Unfortunate medical conditions, widowhood and grief are frequent themes. In “Black Tongue,” the young protagonist learns the consequences of sticking his tongue in an electrical outlet, the lesson apparently being, “There is only so much of your body that you can ruin.”
“People kept dying, and I was made to sleep in their beds,” confesses the main character of “Burn.” The story evolves into a strange and amusing suburban ghost story.
The narrator’s gender is never revealed in “Mouth Full of Fish,” but the setting is highly specific — a spring-fed pool in Balmorhea, Texas. An elderly gem emporium owner asks the protagonist to lift him out of his wheelchair and carry him to the waters for a late-night swim. The story is a sad but funny meditation on mortality and the indignities of aging flesh.
Bullwinkel’s style shifts from story to story, occasionally antic but more often than not hilariously deadpan. She’s adept at finding the indelible image, as in “Hunker Down,” which begins, “By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”
The diverse selections in “Belly Up” share a connection to the surreal, a sense that anything can happen at any time. The end result of any particular selection might be a quick bout of head-scratching, but each story is adventurous in attitude and unique in intent.
What Should Be Wild
By Julia Fine
(Harper; 368 pages; $26.99)
In folklore and myth, the woods are dark, dangerous and to be avoided. They are also the place where one confronts harsh truths in the hope of experiencing genuine freedom. In her debut novel, Julia Fine follows a remarkable young girl as she searches for answers about herself and her family and the magic landscape that connects the past and the present.
From the moment of her birth, Maisie Cothay wields the power of life and death. Anything organic that brushes her bare skin dies instantly, but a second touch brings the subject back to life. The only creature immune to her curse seems to be the dog she calls “Marlowe.”
With the assistance of nursemaid/housekeeper Mrs. Blott, Maisie is raised by her father, Peter, a distracted academic who treats his daughter more like an experiment than as a child. Local folklore about Maisie’s maternal ancestors keeps strangers away from their doorstep. Maisie says, “According to the villagers, ours was a bedeviled family line. Better to be dirt poor and hideously ugly than a Blakely. The house was full of ghosts, claimed some. Cursed, said others. So as not to attract its bad luck, you were best to stay clear.”
Maisie’s sequestered upbringing works well enough until the day Mrs. Blott passes away and isn’t discovered until past the point of revitalization. The incident brings Maisie and her father to the attention of Matthew, a young relative of the deceased. Soon thereafter, Peter disappears, and Maisie must trust Matthew to help her search for her father beyond the confines of the Blakely estate.
“What Should Be Wild” is a rich blend of myth and modernity, set early in the first decade of the current century, but drawing influence from the poetry of William Blake and Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess.” The novel benefits from chapters set within the woods and spotlighting Maisie’s entrapped ancestors.
An intricately contrived feminist fantasy, “What Should Be Wild” explores the urges of the body, the nature of desire and the power of the spirit. The novel offers ample portions of adventure, suspense and humor and marks the arrival of a formidable new talent.
By Claire North
(Orbit; 488 pages; $15.99 paperback)
How much would you pay to get away with murder?
One possible answer is the title of “84K,” the new dystopian novel by Claire North, author of “The End of the Day.”
The protagonist of the narrative calls himself Theodore Miller and works for the Criminal Auditor Office, calculating literal debts to society for criminals who can either pay up or report for years of manual labor on the “patty line.” Afraid of being identified by his old name, Theo keeps his head down at work, knowing that his employer, the Company, is thoroughly corrupt but not seeing what he can do about it.
North writes, “When it became legally compulsory to carry ID, $300 for the certified ID, $500 fine if caught without it, he knew he was observing an injustice that sent thousands of innocent people to the patty line, too skint to buy, too skint to pay for being too skint.”
A chance encounter with a friend and former lover jolts Theo out of his complacency. Dani Cumali tells Theo that he is the father of her teenaged daughter, Lucy, who is being held against her will by the Company. After Theo witnesses Dani’s assassination at the hands of a nonchalant killer for hire, he is determined to rescue Lucy and take down the Company.
North depicts an England where human rights have been abolished and the interests of business and government are one and the same. The premise is logical and chilling, seeming only a few short steps away from today’s reality, her doomsday scenario requiring only the slightest suspension of disbelief.
Theo’s mission of revenge grows in urgency as he travels the country aboard a boat piloted by a transgender Tarot reader, hunting for individuals with clues of Lucy’s whereabouts. North plays with time and point-of-view throughout the novel, folding them over each other in ways that sometimes obscure the meaning of the action. The intent of the book’s climax is clear enough and more than pays off the narrative expectations built to that point.
Dystopian visions of the future are plentiful these days. North’s “84K,” however, is something special — demanding, tough and memorable.
Michael Berry is a freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org