I was barely through the first story of Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side before I felt my brain crackle with excitement like popping candy.
Each strange new idea made me wish I’d thought of it first and gave me a hundred of my own. Helen’s ideas are perhaps best described as magic realism with dark, visceral undertones.
From a child’s birthday present of a real tortured saint to a disappearing wife whose skeleton reappears in a Parisian tomb of bones, Hair Side, Flesh Side creates its own mysterious logic, much like Bulgakov, Kafka or the more contemporary Heather Fowler. Once you allow her to carry you along in her thoughts you’ll be pleasantly surprised by such inspired descriptions as:
“Between us, there was that flash of friendship that comes when two minds strike against each other, flint on steel.”
The thing I like about magic realism is the way it can be used to express ‘truths’ about reality. One of my favourite uses in this collection is in the story Sanditon. A woman has an affair with a married man – an author – who one day discovers missing text from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, the eponymous ‘Sanditon,’ appearing on the woman’s shoulder.
Jane Austen is, of course, best remembered for her stories of women in complicated relationships as well as satirizing strict social mores, and the appearance of it on the body of Marshall’s character reminds us that however new this story feels to those directly involved, it’s as old as storytelling itself.
Another symbol is a pile of bones in Paris, the city of love, used to represent myriad people who have found themselves wanting to be somewhere, anywhere, but with the person with whom they were in a relationship.
I read through the whole thing in a couple of days, pausing only to do inconvenient things you need to do in order to carry on being alive. I highly recommend it, and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for anything else she’s written.