47. ‘Nocturnes’ and 48. ‘Maps to Nowhere’

This week I’m reviewing two short story collections: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro and Maps to Nowhere by Marie Brennan. One is a dreamy meditation upon love and music; the other involves thoughtful fantasy set in rich imaginary worlds. The verdict: I only liked one of them.

47. ‘Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

nocturnes kazuo ishiguro

I decided to return to reading Ishiguro after a two-year hiatus because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Having never read any of his short stories before, I took Nocturnes out of the library and settled in. Sadly, I finished the book disappointed.

Nocturnes collects together five stories, each featuring night-time settings, complicated relationships and a protagonist who is a musician or music-lover. There are things to like about the stories: the interactions are often awkward and the narrators tend to overthink and second guess themselves, which makes them believably human. Unfortunately they’re also believably irritating.

The protagonist of the first story (‘Crooner’) is OK, but after that the same narrator is copy-pasted into the rest of the stories, and he gets more exasperating each time. He’s always a man, always ridiculously self-centred and always the stereotype of a misunderstood artist. In contrast, the women are often (not always, but often) vacuous and cruel. (At one point I actually checked the cover to make sure I wasn’t reading Haruki Murakami instead – the writing was so similar.) In one story, ‘Malvern Hills’, a wannabe professional musician goes to stay for free in his sister’s hotel in the countryside, and when her husband is annoyed by him playing his guitar late one night, our hero decides not to help in the cafe the next day and instead goes off to play in the hills. I was thinking, ‘Have some consideration for other people and stop being a dick.’ But the message of the story seems to be, ‘Isn’t it sad that this man who feels so deeply is so misunderstood?’ Please.

This copy-paste narrator reaches his peak in the final story (‘Nocturne’), which is all about an aspiring musician who has to get facial surgery because he’s not attractive enough for the glitzy, inauthentic music industry. There may be a valid point to be made here, but when it’s being made through the lens of a man who just knows he’s a genius and who is only understood by other rare geniuses because he’s so deep, you begin to wish all these geniuses would just piss off together and leave the rest of us alone. Reading ‘Nocturne’ felt like being berated by a snob for daring to enjoy something mainstream. It’s so teenage. It’s so wanky.

So no, not a fan of this one. On to better things!

48. ‘Maps to Nowhere’ by Marie Brennan

If you’ve ever been near this blog before, you’ll know that I adore Marie Brennan’s ‘Memoirs of Lady Trent’ series, which starts with the BRILLIANT A Natural History of Dragons. I think Maps to Nowhere is her first short story collection, and it gathers together stories which have previously been published in magazines and on the internet.

All of the stories in this collection are fantasy, and they cover a range of fantastical elements, from more well-known things like fairies, mermaids and dragons (yes, one of the stories in here is set in the Lady Trent universe!), to entirely new invented worlds inspired by real ancient mythology. The story that opens the collection, ‘Once a Goddess’, is brilliant: it tells the story of Nefret, a young woman who became the earthly avatar for a goddess when she was a child, and who has to learn to live as a normal woman when the goddess leaves her and she is kicked out of the temple. It contrasts high-flown myth with realistic drudgery, highlights the plight of women and gives the reader a heroine we can cheer for.

Other favourites in this Maps to Nowhere include ‘But Who Shall Lead the Dance?’, about a girl trapped in a fairy ring who will be forced to dance until she dies; ‘A Thousand Souls’, about a mermaid who must harvest human souls to regain her own; and ‘Letter Found…’, about a man who is given the chance to rewrite his past, with heartbreaking consequences. Strong veins of mythology run through this book, and there are complex female characters in every story.

What’s more, each story ends with a footnote in which Brennan explains what inspired the idea, the process she went through to write it and sometimes the story’s route to publication. I love getting ‘behind the scenes’ insights like this; it really lets you see the nuts and bolts and work behind the artistic form. (What a contrast to Nocturnes, in which artistic talent is a mysterious gift bestowed only on a lucky few.)

Maps to Nowhere is a really enjoyable, readable collection, and Brennan’s writing is always delightfully engaging. Skip Ishiguro, read this.

“Like a solitaire diamond, [a short story] invites the audience to focus on the beauty of that single thing.” – Afterword, Maps to Nowhere, Marie Brennan

Have you read either of these books or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read these? You can buy Nocturnes here and Maps to Nowhere here.

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