Four years since the publication of his last adult novel, The Red House, Mark Haddon released last month a collection of short stories in the beautifully bound The Pier Falls. The new book marks an evolution and maturation in Haddon’s writing that, in retrospect, should not have been all that unexpected. The Pier Falls is undoubtedly more ‘dark’ than his previous works. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, possibly Haddon’s best known work and currently on tour as a play, dealt with the difficulties of autism and relationship breakdown, but took a more light-hearted tone. A Spot of Bother and The Red House both had dark undertones, revolving around themes of terminal cancer and miscarriage respectively, but were so well peppered with humour and a sense of ‘ordinariness’ that the more ominous elements were always well tempered.
Review in <50 words: Death and mortality are dominant themes of Haddon’s short stories, whilst Haddon returns to mental health issues addressed in previous works. The major strengths of The Pier Falls are: attention of to detail that provoke a sense of familiarity; relatable characters; well-paced tales; and quirky humour.
Here Haddon forces us to confront our mortality. Death is a recurring theme throughout all the stories, but what makes them all so gripping is the different perspectives taken on the subject. Haddon guides us to experience death in the first and third person, in dramatic fashion and through simple decay. In doing so, Haddon raises questions about our response to death; should we fear it, or accept it?
An element that provides the new collection with some continuity from previous works is the persistence of mental health subtexts. The Curious Incident chronicled the world through the eyes of a boy with autism. Hypochondria plagued the protagonist of A Spot of Bother. Mixed throughout the tales of The Pier Falls are characters whose own mental states fluctuate and deteriorate when they are confronted with the more gruelling challenges of life.
Nonetheless, Haddon introduces various themes previously left relatively untouched throughout his work, including: how to treat those in a position of need or dependency; the passage of time; the supernatural (albeit The Red House hinted in this direction); and inequality. Whilst brief, Haddon’s contributions to these topics are quite pertinent. Also interesting to note is the inspiration which Haddon has taken from classical myth, folklore and history in several of the stories. In doing so, Haddon ties his interpretations to a deeper meaning and gives them more weight.
Overall, the collection is a gripping ride.
Haddon has a remarkable ability to dissect and transmit the details of everyday life. Observations on the setting, from the weather to a rooms furniture, provide a realism to the imagery that Haddon evokes. All the stories succeed in transporting you to a new, but familiar place, despite the range of times and locations that set each scene.
Once more, the stories are seasoned with Haddon’s humour, painlessly eliciting laughter, even during the more inappropriate moments. The greatest strength of A Spot of Bother was how funny a read it was, an attribute that The Pier Falls, though not to such a great extent.
Overall, the collection is a gripping ride. It took about nine hours to read from cover to cover, and was difficult to put down during that time. Most tales are well-paced; most come to a close just as the novelty of the situation has worn off, though others leave you desperate to know more. Most characters are well developed, for short stories, and highly relatable. If aspects of yourself are not reflected back at you, then you will certainly be able to see the traits of others you know. Haddon has cemented his place as my favourite author by providing another thrilling book. I eagerly await any future works he may produce, and would thoroughly recommend The Pier Falls and his older novels to any reader.
You can follow Mark Haddon on Twitter here.