A new Mark Haddon book always gets my inner reader excited. Two of my favourite books are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. Haddon hits the nail on the head when he writes about how we behave and think. He writes with a clarity that makes our thoughts and behaviour seem so straightforward and obvious when they are anything but.
His new book is The Pier Falls – a collection of short stories – and I came to it with certain expectations. Really good short stories are not that easy to come by and I wondered if Haddon would be able to reach the bar set by those who have gone before him. Think Roald Dahl, Junot Díaz, Raymond Carver. But I shouldn’t have been too worried, as he’s come close to the bullseye with this collection.
The Pier Falls is not at all what I expected. It’s dark; in some stories very dark. Much darker than anything by Haddon that I’ve read before. But the stories are incredibly varied in their genres. The first story is the one from which the book takes its title. It sets the tone for the other stories. An old pier that runs from the beach out to sea is packed wait people. It’s a beautiful day in 1970. Laughter rises from the crowd as families eat ice-cream and enjoy the idyllic setting. Kids zip around in dodgem cars. A barrel organ plays Stauss waltzes on repeat. The sea is sparkling.
Then the rivets on the struts holding up the pier begin to pop.At first no-one notices the slight drop in height and the odd rumble. Haddon coolly lays out the scene before us as the pier begins to collapse.You can’t help but be transfixed; it’s like watching a catastrophe unfold live on a news story. You feel like you’re gawping but you can’t look away.
The first story sets you back on your heels but there is more to come. ‘Wodwo’ reminds me of an old creepy tale from The Twilight Zone. A family comes together to celebrate Christmas Eve. Suddenly a stranger knocks at the window. He asks for hospitality. It’s cold outside. Do they let him in? What will happen if they do? This story is classic Haddon. His deep insight into what makes us tick emerges as we meet the usual dysfunctional family members at Christmas who rub each other up the wrong way.
‘The Woodpecker and the Wolf ’ is set on Mars. A group of people who were hand-picked for a trip of a lifetime are living together in isolation. They endure sandstorms that last for weeks and they need to ration food until the first support ship arrives from Earth. But the are essentially alone with each other. Then the only doctor gets appendicitis.
‘The Island’ mixes reality with myth as a Greek princess is abandoned on a deserted island by someone she thought was her lover. She is alone. How will she survive?
With every new book Mark Haddon takes himself down a new writing path, but in each one his ability to convey what it is to be human is always apparent. This – his first short story collection – is no different. It’s twisted, daring, strange, at times confronting in its reality, and then out of this world. But always we see the humanity, even if it’s on the dark side and at times uncomfortable to watch.
All the stories deal with a similar theme of what it is to be human and lonely. And there are no happily-ever-afters. He’s a talented writer; I can’t wait to read what he’ll do next.