THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS by Georgina Bruce.

I’ve not been reviewing books recently; rather I’ve been enjoying the freedom to read whatever I like without making notes or analysing subtext or trying to think of things to say. But when I got a message from the consistently excellent Undertow Press asking if I would like a free copy of Georgina Bruce’s first collection I couldn’t resist.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the cover: it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen, and printed on good quality, lightly textured card that almost feels alive. It’s a sensual delight and a joy to touch, to hold, to open. It’s a promising start and warms me to the book before I’ve read a word.

Upon starting the first story, I realise how perfect the cover is. THE LADY OF SITUATIONS begins with an act of shocking violence, as if the image has leaked into the prose with images of blood, flowers, internal organs. It becomes an expressionist portrait of abuse, misogyny and escape, told in beautiful dreamlike prose. It’s an arresting start.

The themes established in the opening tale are continued, expanded and embellished throughout. Ms. Bruce is not one for linear narrative or an easy distinction between reality, dreams, analogy, art, intoxication and self-deceit. In many ways the whole book is an exploration how we distance ourselves from reality, and from ourselves.

RED QUEENING channels themes from Lewis Carroll through the distorted lenses of Harlan Ellison, Ramsay Campbell, and Clive Barker. Again it’s a surreal nightmare with a glimpse of hope at the end. HER BONES THE TREES lulls us into a false sense of security with dialogue between characters and something like a narrative, but the very internal pov and extreme sensuality keep everything distant. It’s about sex and death and transformation, but you can only see tiny fragments of anything and have to create the story for yourself.

In a dystopian future in which the only industry still thriving is child prostitution, the young victims survive by chewing travel gum, which transports them to the virtual CAT WORLD.  Several of the stories feature abusive men exploiting powerless girls – misogyny is a recurring theme, including in THE BOOK OF DREEMS. More like a traditional horror revenge tale, in which an abusive husband goes too far and gets a comeuppance, except that our narrator is so broken that we have no idea whether anything that happens is real or her damaged psyche trying to make sense of a terrible reality.

SHADOW MEN is a dark folk tale in which men, awed and envious of the power of women, take out their frustration in acts of petty violence, and justify it to themselves in convoluted ways. It sounds like real life except for the ancient Queen of the Forest, and the men who give up their shadows for power over women.

KUEBIKO starts like a situation from the real world but don’t be fooled. It’s a guided tour of a woman’s life: her history, her regrets, fears and ultimately her despair. If it sounds depressing, perhaps it is, but it’s also gorgeous. It too mirrors the cover art – an eviscerated woman can be a beautiful thing. But is the woman suffering purely for our voyeuristic entertainment?

Several of the stories make me slightly ashamed to be male, but when Ms. Bruce moves into the second person when talking about the husband in DOGS I felt accused, as if I am every bad man that has ever been. A relationship goes terribly wrong and it seems she only ever loved his dog.

In WAKE UP, PHIL, the Coke vs Pepsi war has grown to Orwellian proportions, but the products are indistinguishable, and confusing them has terrible consequences. This might be the only story in the collection that I felt I fully understood, but that probably means I’m missing something.

Two consecutive tales CROW VOODOO and THE QUEEN OF KNIVES travel the same road in different directions: both deal with young women claiming their heritage; both demonstrate the beauty inherent in violence and both stretch the reader in different ways. The former in particular abandons the idea that we should take some parts of a story literally and other parts as analogy – a thing can be both.

In THE ART OF FLYING, a woman who has survived cancer and an abusive husband finds solace in her own doom, and LITTLE HEART confirms the theme of the book: that memory, dreams, art and reality are all stirred together in the melting pot of our minds, and what we call truth is an amalgam of those experiences.

THE ART LOVERS surprised me by having a sympathetic male protagonist, though he is exploited by other men, but it becomes a sinister and increasingly violent meditation on how little the sexes understand each other. There is a genuinely sympathetic male character in WHITE RABBIT, about an elderly widower losing his way as dementia robs him of himself. This is paired with THE SEAS OF THE MOON, about a woman losing herself to post-natal depression. Life’s beginnings and endings will both destroy us.

I loved this book. The best way to read it is just to roll with it: a story may have more than one narrative strand and there’s no point trying to separate what is actually happening from the warped internal world of our damaged protagonists, or from Ms. Bruce’s unique way of mixing story with ideas and metaphor, giving each equal weight.

You could read it in little snippets, like a collection of beautiful but disturbing little poems, and it’s best to leave space between each tale, try to digest it. I know I didn’t understand everything, but I enjoyed mulling over each piece, my thoughts and emotions crawling in circles and looking for points of resonance in my own life, questioning my beliefs and assumptions, sometimes finding ways to blame myself for all the evils of the world. It takes a special book to do that.

You can open the book at random, read a paragraph or two and find a perfectly composed little epigram, capturing an idea or an emotion in a handful of words. Reading it too quickly or not giving it your full attention means you’ll miss some snippets of extraordinary beauty.

It’s not always an easy read – it takes effort and concentration, but the rewards for your commitment are worth it. A truly astonishing achievement.

You can read the author’s blog here, visit the publisher’s website here, and buy the book on Amazon UK. Other book retailers do exist, or buy direct from the publisher.

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