Admirers of Belgian writer Michel Faber's magnificent breakthrough novel, The Crimson Petal and the White
, may be surprised by how well his taut but unhurried prose translates to shorter fiction in the three novellas of The Courage Consort
. It helps, of course, that the stories--minor marvels of suspenseful pacing and atmosphere--are unified by a large, old-fashioned theme: the loss of innocence (and, in one case, the struggle to preserve it). In the title story, an English vocal ensemble travels to Belgium for a two-week residency at a rural chateau, an opportunity to rehearse a notoriously difficult and possibly pointless new composition. Catherine, the soprano--and the dependent, emotionally fragile wife of the ensemble's director--hears plangent cries from the surrounding woods each night. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Catherine feels herself approaching middle age without having achieved adulthood. If she goes into the woods--facing the ghostly legend of a simple-minded mother and her baby, lost there near the end of World War II--will she find her grown-up self? The second novella, "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," traces a paper conservator's nightly unraveling of an 18th century oil merchant's tight-scrolled deathbed confession. And the third, "The Fahreinheit Twins," is one part Angela Carter, one part Jack London: a scary fairy tale translated to a glittering ice-bound wilderness.
Events that would be sensational in the hands of most writers--gruesome nightmares, hauntings, possible murders--are serenely dispatched by Faber, who has bigger emotional game in sight. And while every writer has characteristic tics and favorite phrases, the joy here is in observing Faber's growing mastery, and how few the limits on his talent. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
The loss of innocence, the urgency of sexual need and the persistence of inner demons unite these three fine novellas, further evidence of the wide-ranging imagination, ironic humor and incisive characterization Faber displayed in The Crimson Petal and the White
. Siân, in "The 199 Steps," is working on an archeological dig in England when she encounters Mack, a gorgeous fitness buff. As Siân and Mack try to decipher the clues to a 1788 murder, Siân's dreams of a handsome man slitting her throat grow in intensity, paralleling the grisly facts she brings to light. The denouement is surprising—and satisfying—for what does not happen. In "The Fahrenheit Twins," Tainto'lilith and Marko'cain are pre-adolescent twin brother and sister living in the Arctic tundra with their eccentric parents, both anthropological researchers. When their mother dies, their father encourages them to voyage alone into the wilderness with her body tied to a sled. Catherine Courage, of the title story, is the soprano member of an avant-garde musical ensemble that has gathered in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a fiendishly difficult piece. Suffering through a July heat wave, Catherine is driven to desperation by an eerie cry she hears in the night. A tragedy, however, provides the reality shock she needs. While this is a slighter effort than Faber's previous work, readers will again be immersed in the intense worlds he creates.
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