Sunlight can be many things. It can be dazzling, cheerful, burning, triumphant, glorious. In Mark Haddon’s hands sunlight becomes… sour. Reading The Pier Falls, Haddon’s collection of short stories, a line about sour sunlight coming through the window knocked me sideways.
Surely sunlight is anything but sour? But sunlight is the ultimate life giving energy and as these stories show in a myriad of ways, misfortune, cruelty and neglect cause life to disintegrate. Every one of these tales from science fiction distopia, to reimagined Greek mythology and kitchen sink brutalism, features decay and disintegration in some form. What sustains us can easily turn against us. Love, hope, good intentions, and yes, even sunlight can sour. This woozy mix of recognition and confusion as the familiar becomes alien and the alien familiar is a recurring feeling when reading through this collection.
Rarely have I seen squalor, pain and hopelessness written with such deftness.The language is light and playfully constructed, belying the dark themes and characters. The Grim Reaper is our constant companion through the pages, like the misguided Siri, always waiting under our thumbs, ready to pop up at any moment and get in the way. And yet life is death’s companion and there is so much life and truthful insight in these pieces, aided by shots of dark humour and touching observation, that you are somehow not left feeling miserable or hopeless but profoundly moved.
The strongest pieces in this collection, the eponymous’The Pier Falls’, ‘The Woodpecker and the Wolf’ and ‘The Weir’ allow moments for our souls to soar, however dappled with sour sunlight. While at other times Haddon keeps us as at too much of a distance.
An overriding theme of these stories is disengagement. Structures (emotional and physical) collapse, relationships fracture, bodies fail and grips on reality loosen. At points, this disengagement risks disengaging the reader, with some characters hard to invest in, but the quality of the writing and the effortlessly brisk pace keep you turning page after page.
Haddon’s gift is to write light prose with dark content, sunlight that is sour. In an assured but disorientating present tense, his writing is clear, immediate and immersive. He possesses a mordant common sense that has an eye for both the beautiful and the ugly without being contrived. This is a skill Haddon shares with Simon Armitage and Tony Harrison. Haddon artfully finds within the mundane both the grotesque and the poetic.