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Fragile Things
Neil Gaiman
Headline paperback £7.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Neil Gaiman is a writer deeply engaged with the world. His stories are richly referential, bouncing from Sherlock Holmes in A Study In Emerald to Scheherazade in Inventing Aladdin and, when he isn't name-checking, Gaiman is using our cultural heritage in more subtle ways, or making connections amongst his own body of work. These methods often add depth, evoking myth in Monarch Of The Glen, for example, but in the weaker pieces, he relies on our familiarity with other material to signal meanings, rather than doing the work himself. Occasionally, he appears to be repeating his own work; the gathering of the Months in October In The Chair is reminiscent of Morpheus and his siblings from the Sandman comics, with June particularly bringing to mind the character Delirium.

Similar reflections within this volume, though, strengthen the book from a 'compilation' to a 'collection', even though most of these items were written to someone else's brief. On a number of occasions, the outline overwhelms Gaimain's style: A Study In Emerald is 'Sherlock Holmes meets the world of H.P. Lovecraft'; Diseasemaker's Croup makes little sense until you know it was written for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases; and Goliath is set in the world of the Matrix movies. These settle into the volume, though, thanks to Gaiman's introduction, which repeats the motif of a number of the stories in having a framing narrative as well as the central story. It is an odd choice for October In The Chair, where the frame weakens the content, but a perfect choice for Closing Time, the closest I have yet seen to a successful modern M.R. James story. In this story, as is often the case, Gaiman's own character comes through, something which is also present in the careful placement of pieces in this book.

Although published five years apart, the ending of The Hidden Chamber and the opening of Forbidden Brides Of The Faceless Slaves In The Secret House Of The Night Of Dread Desire echo each other beautifully. The story behind the latter piece is an education in itself. It is a piece of purple prose that finishes with a broad - dare I say facetious - joke which Gaiman first wrote as a callow youth. Then, it was dismissed as incapable; 20 years later, a little light rewriting can make it an affectionate, if cutting, comment on the fields he works in. I don't think the piece would have been voted best short story in the 2005 Locus awards if an unknown had published it.

People clearly love his work, though, and Gaiman comes across as a thoroughly nice chap, both in his introduction and in a number of the first person stories, making it difficult to separate narrator and author. This gives an extra jolt in stories such as Keepsakes And Treasures, where the narrator turns out to be a nasty piece of work. We get a different view of the same character in the last story in the collection, Monarch Of The Glen, which showcases the best and worst of Gaiman. Here, the strong bones of plot, place and character carry the weight of multiple references to Gaiman's own body of work and use of two myths, one well known and the other carefully explained. It is also neatly shaped, which is not something we can rely on in this collection. A good proportion of both prose and poetry feels incomplete, as if the germ of an idea was dashed onto paper and never returned to. However, these minor pieces provide a lot of the echoes that run through the work; they make the volume stronger and that helps them earn their place in the collection. The result is an interesting and varied collection.
Fragile Things

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