I’ve come to realize that Michel Faber is really ****ing weird, and I love it. My third Faber adventure, after The Crimson Petal and the White and The Fire Gospel is his collection of three novellas entitled The Courage Consort. I liked it much better than The Fire Gospel and can see how his wit and his sense of the strange and surreal influenced the writing of Crimson Petal. These three novellas are witty, ironic, sometimes downright ridiculous, and unexpectedly poignant at times. The three are “The Courage Consort,” “The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps,” and “The Fahrenheit Twins.”
“The Courage Consort” begins this collection. It tells the story of an a cappella group named, appropriately, The Courage Consort. Their group is christened such both because their founder’s surname is Courage and also for the old Wesleyan adage, “sing lustily and with much courage.” Roger and Catherine Courage are a married couple in the Consort who live for weeks in the Chateau de Luth, practicing a modern piece for a concert. The dynamic of the five members of the consort figure prominently in the narrative, as does the mental state of Kate, who suffers from depression. Kate has fantasies of suicide and is unhappy in her marriage. She also hears an ethereal, anguish-filled child’s cry every night during her sleep. Kate is the main protagonist of this story, as she navigates her awkward, sexless marriage; her relationship with the only other woman in the consort, a sexual, confident mother named Dagmar; and the kinship she feels with bulky, overweight Ben Lamb. It’s an interesting story of character development and the way these very different people manage not to rip each others’ hair out. When tragedy strikes the consort, they must examine their principles and begin new lives.
“The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps” takes place in the UK town of Whitby, the same setting as Dracula, a gothic setting for a less-than-gothic novella. It does have touches of the dramatic, however:
She closed her eyes, longing to trust him, longing to rest her head in the pillowy crook of his arm, but at the last instant, she glimpsed sideways, and saw the knife in his other hand. Her scream was gagged by the blade slicing deep into her throat, severing everything right through to the bone of her spine, plunging her terrified soul into pitch darkness.
Thus this novella begins, with a thirty-something archaeology student named Siân on a dig of a monastery in Whitby. Since her arrival in Whitby, Siân has been plagued by the same murderous dream night after night. A shy, idealistic woman, Siân meets a fit jogger named Mack, a Londoner in town to handle his late father’s affairs. The two are attracted to each other but find themselves constantly butting heads on issues of religion, antiquity, and faith. Siân believes strongly in the virtue of the medieval monks and priests, in the truth and nobility of history, in a higher power. Mack, a cynic, tries to disabuse Siân of her long-held notions and comes across, to me, as obnoxious and self-serving. When Mack discovers a message in a bottle in his father’s estate, he enlists Siân’s help with interpreting its contents, hoping for a grisly tale of murder. What they find plays with the readers’ expectations of the gothic genre and sheds new light upon the nature, and sometimes contradictory nature, of religion and faith. A great, quick read with solid, interesting characters and a satisfying ending.
“The Fahrenheit Twins” was my favorite of the three stories. It’s set on an island near the North Pole and follows the lives of young twins Marko’cain and Tainto’lilith as they make sense of their bleak, desolate world around them. The twins are the children of ethnologists who are conducting research on nearby aboriginal communities on the island. Marko’cain and Tainto’lilith, who are probably around ten years old, were born on the island, possess impressive survival skills, know nothing of the outside world, and together, piece together little bits and pieces of facts they write down in a book. Their banter and wit and they way they finish each others’ sentences lend this story a touch of levity in an otherwise bleak novella. Bleak, because their ethnologist mother dies, and their alleged father (it’s implied that an aboriginal man is actually the twins’ biological father) sends them on a deadly expedition from which they must find their way back. Because of my love of the North, the lively little characters, and the dry humor of this piece, it was easily my favorite.
Faber is an interesting writer for the way he infuses his stories with a bit of surrealism and the fantastical without explaining anything; for example, the nightmares Siân has echo the murder she discovers in the bottle’s message; and Kate in “The Courage Consort” never discovers the source of that eerie, unearthly child’s cry. I liked those elements of unexplained, otherworldly events. They add a touch of surreality to the narrative and do much to explain the characters’ mental states.
Next on the Faber agenda: the short-story collection Some Rain Must Fall. Stay tuned!