3 out of 4 stars
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I've observed some intriguing characters in my neighbourhood, like the man who goes round cafe tables begging for cigarettes, and the lady who sits in the square with her craft projects. In her anthology The Memoir Man, author Frances Webb uses human activities in public places as the raw material for short stories and poems. Typically, a narrator recounts an incident they observed or were somehow involved in. These vary from the ordinary to the bizarre.
The stories and poems are at their most effective when the encounter changes the narrator in some way. For example, the story "A Map of the Streets of the City of New York" is narrated by a teacher of English to Spanish-speaking students. This teacher, whose gender is not explicitly mentioned, repeats the phrase "I am employed" from time to time while recounting various incidents from classes. This shows how such employment shapes that narrator's identity, which was fascinating to think about. Something else I loved about this story was the way it explored different levels of communication and understanding.
Misunderstandings between characters give rise to tension in some of the stories. I appreciated the author's skill in building such tension even when there was no interaction between the narrator and the characters. For example, in the story "What to Do What to Do", the narrator's fretting about the shell of an egg eaten by a fellow passenger sheds light on their own anxiety.
The above story offers a prime example of the author's blow-by-blow style. As the scenes play out, readers are whisked along at a fast pace. Plenty of details are given, yet most of the stories take just a few minutes to read. As a result of the stories' brevity, the jumps from one piece to the next come often. These switches sometimes made me feel dizzy, and I believe the collection could be improved if the works were grouped more by theme. There is a consecutive series of short stories and poems with train settings, but some of the others could also be ordered more logically.
Some disorientation could also be caused by the extreme shortness of many stories. Very short works can feel complete, of course, but some of the ones in this book felt insufficiently developed. In those cases, the endings did not pack as much of a punch as short fiction ideally should. At best, however, this collection did contain some noteworthy examples of endings that could linger in readers' minds. For example, the story "Keepsake" might get you thinking about the significance you assign to encounters with strangers.
As the collection includes relatable themes, and most of the work in it is polished but of slightly variable quality, I rate it three out of four stars. I'd recommend it to fans of short, pithy stories or lovers of poems that lend lyricism to everyday experiences. City dwellers might particularly savour the familiarity of various incidents on public transport.
The Memoir Man
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