By Mark Howard Jones

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

This comes as a neat little chapbook, with a simple attractive cover, and with clear and easy-to-read print totally bereft of typos, the bane of many small press productions. The story, in essence, is a simple one--a woman's musician husband, Michael, has been missing for two months, but she comes to believe that he left clues to his movements in some lyrics on his last recorded song album, and that he has gone to a 'pale island'. She sets out to find out if such an island exists...

This plot is a vehicle to look at ideas of death, love, loyalty, belief, in a semi-realistic, semi-fantastical setting. (The publisher issues works 'seeking to merge and modernise the ideas behind Expressionism, Surrealism, and Existentialism'.) The prose is of a very high standard, at times poetical and forceful. I particularly liked a description of Sandy, the heroine, after a bad night: '...she looked in the mirror. Something that hadn't been properly defrosted stared back at her...'

The story falls into two distinct parts - pre-island, and the island itself. For me, the first part is less interesting than the second, because it's a fairly typical 'I can't believe he'd really leave me' scenario, with anguished conversations with musical colleagues, friends, mother-in-law. There are 'visions' (or visitations?) but I feel that these (sudden images of Michael on a blank TV screen, of a car crash, of a friend decomposing) are devices that have been used far too often. However, these are cavils, because the story moves along briskly (with a couple of good decoys, such as Lukie, a member of Michael's band with good reason to dislike him), and a sense of mystery and foreboding is rapidly built up.

The second part is excellent, except for one thing: at the beginning of the paranormal part, Sandy seems to react to each impossibility with the same calm acceptance as Alice in her wonderland. (The following is disconcertingly pure Alice: 'She'd heard of 'lost' villages sunken beneath the sea but never of any of them coming back from the depths.') Later, though, as realism recedes, this 'otherworldly' feeling is fine, and in keeping with the story. The phantasmagorical images pile up, starting with the Avalon-like mist, a wraith-girl in a green dress who dissolves into flowers, the clock with unmoving stone hands, the maze that is too easy, a piano that is 'played' by rain drops, the past rising up all around, including her dead father - all leading ineluctably to the final meeting with Michael. Perhaps a bit more time should have been spent on this, because I didn't really get the impression of a dead man--until, that is, Sandy's sudden discovery that the dead are after all dead, and not quite the same as they might have been when alive. Real shivers there! And a beautiful ambiguity in the final paragraph...

The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows by Mark Howard Jones. A5 chapbook, 56 pp, £2.49/UK incl p&p (for other countries refer to website). Published by ISMs Press, 54 Brundetts Road, Manchester M21 9DE.

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Steve Redwood is the author of Fisher of Devils and Who Needs Cleopatra? (see )

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