“Roof Whirl Away”
is the second collection of short stories from Tom Saunders. In his first, “Brother, What Strange Place is This?”
published by UKA Press in 2004, Saunders demonstrated a remarkable imaginative range, a fine ear for the musical possibilities of language, and an equally fine eye for the telling details of human lives. The same qualities are very much in evidence here.
Saunders has a way of coming at his stories side-on, as if he is trying to take his characters off-guard, so that they are almost lured into revealing more of themselves than they might. This lateral approach means that his openings – and titles – often have an indirect, or misdirected, feel, occasionally to the point of obtuseness. “Marlon Brando had a pet racoon called Russell,” begins one story which turns out, either playfully or perversely depending on your point of view, to have nothing to do with either Marlon Brando or his racoon. The effect is that the reader is thrown off balance too. We’re forced to abandon whatever assumptions we might have had about the narrative direction and… pay attention!
This is less taxing than it sounds, because the stories both command and reward our attention. The opening hooks compel through their obliquity, but the writing as a whole engages us through its essential humanity and – an unfashionable virtue perhaps – optimism. Even a story about the death of an aged bookseller, “Postscript”, manages to be uplifting. Much of its power is down to the alert simplicity of the prose. “The birds quieten and everything becomes still. The words in the book are a journey. He steps along with them. There will be a full stop and he must travel to meet it.” It’s a small, quiet story that achieves its effects without sensationalism or sentimentality. Saunders seems to understand what to leave out as much as what to put in, an important skill for a short story writer.
In the longer stories, Saunders allows the characters more space in which to reveal and unravel. Rather than lyrical glimpses into a life at a crucial moment, dramas are played out, with fully fleshed out casts, and rich narrative detail. The title story, about a young French boy being looked after by his emotionally damaged grown-up sister, while their actor parents are away touring, has all the quirky charm and tempestuous drama of your favourite foreign movie. “The Great House of Easement” is set in post-Soviet St Petersburg and tells the story of a 93 year-old toilet attendant. In fact, Timofey Petrovitch Shulgin had been an outspoken dissident during the communist years, sentenced to labour in the toilets in the Alekseyevsky Vault as some kind of Stalinist joke. In typical Saunders’ style, the story shifts focus to Timofey’s wayward grandson, Grigory, a gay, and when needs be transvestite, prostitute, making a living from stealing cameras and identities from the tourists he picks up. What comes across is not just Saunders’ imaginative fertility, but also his generosity as a writer. Almost every character is afforded the honour of a fully-imagined back-story and inner life. The story comes close to being a metaphor for modern Russia’s embrace of rampant capitalism, but is rescued from that by the complex humanity of the characters, and their never-failing ability to surprise. A case in point is old Timofey’s reaction to his grandson’s confessional outpourings. “… this banquet of contrition is giving me the croup. Your shame, Grigory, is your shame alone. Express it too lavishly around other people and it will begin to feel like vanity. Accept when you are forgiven and shut up.”
Overall, what impresses most is the sheer range. Saunders is able to enter into the lives of his diverse characters, from a king’s favourite dwarf to an alien life form, with great compassion and commitment.