John Boyne is, as I have said before, one of this century's greatest writers. His ability to transform a situaiton from being two-dimensional to being three-dimensional is astounding. In one of my recently read books by him called Water, we encounter a woman who has moved to an island and changed her name in order to escape a past life where at first we think she is completely the victim - as the story moves along though we realise that it is much more complicated than that. In another one of his books I recently read entitled Crippen, we meet a flock of people sailing from Antwerp on a luxury ship - one of them on board is a murderer, another is in disguise and not everyone is who we think they are. As we delve into the past, the situation becomes even more complex when we meet a woman named Cora and her friend, Mrs Smythson. In this text called Beneath the Earth, we encounter something even weirder - John Boyne's short fiction. I am very much looking forward to this.
The first story in the collection is an eye-opener, which means the anthology is bound to be good. I have always said that if you are publishing a short story anthology and you want to wow the readers, then you should probably opt for something pretty shocking to begin with, this means that the readers have a flavour of not only your writing style, but also how far and morally depraved your characters are willing to go. Boy, 19 is one of those stories. A disaffected youth who braves the rain of student life by making money his own way. Unfortunately, this involves prostitution.
He recounts his life as being taken away from his alcoholic mother and his disaffectionate father and put in a halfway house and a foster home. This follows a dreadful event in the life of his family which sends his mother spiralling downwards. Following this, he tells the reader about one night whilst he was working, how he recognised a voice down the phone and what strange but darkly comical event happened afterwards. The ending is pretty brutal and will probably leave you thinking about it for a while though - there's nothing funny there.
However, the entirety of the rest of the anthology sets a whole different tone. For example: one of the stories is called The Country You Called Home in which a son of a French woman and an Irishman who hasn't lived in Ireland since god knows when, struggles with his identity after he accidentally breaks an heirloom watch given to him. In the midst of the first World War, we watch as he witnesses his father's breakdown, his mother's discontent and his overall worry that his father may go away forever. It is within this story that we here those forboding words of another war inevitably coming and we are forced to reflect on how many people actually thought that at that time. Were there honestly people who thought there would be another war no matter what? The ending is a shock revelation for the then-child and one that opens one door and closes another.
John Boyne writes with such incredible precision about difficult family relations and within this, we have the complex attitudes that are passed on from parent to child. The distant father figures, the emotional mother figures and the non-existent siblings are all part and parcel of some of his most incredible stories. This one has been slightly darker than those of which I am used to, but in other ways it also reminded me that John Boyne is a master of dark comedy. In many of his stories, he features some sort of dark critique of the modern world in which we are forced to confront the demons we all face to some degree. It is a weird blend of making the story more relatable but also making the reader feel terrible about themselves. I personally think this is an awesome technique of writing.
All in all, I think that this book is a very strong anthology by Boyne in which he is able to create wonderous and miserable worlds in only a few pages, the endings though anticlimatic are also deep, meaningful and bewilderingly dark.