Andrew Humphrey, Other Voices. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. iii+221. ISBN 9780955318146. £5.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

This is a double for what we Suffolk folk talk of as That Other Place, a collection by Norfolk-based writer Andrew Humphrey published by the Norfolk-based Elastic Press - award-winning purveyors of quality, innovative fiction.

Other Voices is Andrew Humphrey’s second Elastic Press collection, the first being the critically-acclaimed Open the Box. Andrew Humphrey is a versatile author who produces an eclectic mix of crime, science fiction, slipstream and mainstream, often mixing and matching elements of some or all of these genres. His writing is economical, immensely readable but always accessible, even when telling his most opaque tales.

So, to the anthology itself. Another double here, my feelings about the book. There is no doubt that the stories here are original, crisp and, in many cases, quite profound. The characterisation is vivid and the plots both credible and solid. However, collected together like this there is a sameness which becomes a little wearing by the time the final story is reached. There is a theme, nothing wrong with that, whether intentional or not. It’s there in virtually every tale, a male protagonist who is chauvinistic, embittered and wrestling, ineffectually, with a doomed relationship. I found myself wanting to shout, to shake them and tell them to grow up and pull themselves together, which is probably the point. Not that the book’s womenfolk are blameless, long-suffering in many cases, hard and cold in others, but for the most part, hollowed-out by their downbeat partners.

Individually, however, each story is a highly-polished gem. Concise, often satisfyingly ambiguous (not such a contradiction as it sounds), and compelling. Once started on a story, I wanted to finish it, no matter how late for work or for sleep it made me. Most are set in and around Norwich which adds to the book's thematic feel and also grounds the fiction solidly to this earth, vital when expecting suspension of disbelief for a journey into the dark.

Let’s take a look. The opener, for example, ‘Grief Inc’ is one of those mixes Humphrey does so well. This is a fine story set in a near-future Britain torn by civil war featuring a protagonist who absorbs other people’s grief. ‘Dogfight’ is a surreal mix of father-son relationship-healing mingled with what appears to be a ghost story in which a Battle of Britain dogfight is re-enacted in 21st century skies. ‘Last Kiss’ reeks with a never-realised menace when a typical Humphrey loser persuades a would-be suicide to change his mind, with Dirty Harry subtlety, then finds himself threatened by the very man he has saved, or is he being threatened? The ending is stark and uncertain and very unsettling.

Sometimes an adulterous protagonist gets his come-uppance, as in ‘Butter Wouldn’t Melt’ for instance. Other times there are terrible secrets to be told, such as the one best left on ‘Strawberry Hill’, although the actual dark truth is as shocking as it is unexpected. ‘Three Days’ shows us the effect a missing child can have on an already dysfunctional relationship, ‘Think of a Number’ gives us a quick blast from the muzzle of a trainee hit man’s gun. ‘Holding Pattern’, one of my favourites, is an unnerving account of a man whose life is literally falling apart as reality unwinds, but which reality is it, his own, or the fabric of the universe itself?

So, a collection of masterly stories, Other Voices is a book of supremely good writing, but take my advice, dip, don’t trek. Open it up, select a story, savour it then close the book and come back another time for the next course. Reading it in one go would be a mistake, would take away the enjoyment and appreciation of what it contains, because the sum of its parts is definitely greater than the whole. Once again, all power to Elastic for bringing out a bold, imaginative and unsafe piece of work written by one of our best.

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