by Di Reed
Two Ravens Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Note: This is an ever-so-slightly reworked version of an older review to celebrate the release of Di Reed's book by Two Ravens Press, an independent publisher based in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. My last review of this book mentioned how Reed’s literary agent was unable to find a publisher who would take on the collection. I wrote about how the publishing world is fearful to take a chance on anything remotely out of the ordinary. I praised Reed’s bravery to self-publish but felt that the book deserved better. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it had been picked up by Two Ravens and is now widely available.
Ever felt a little out of your depth? Like you’ve just bitten off a bit more than you can chew but the restaurant you’re in is far too posh to spit stuff back out onto your plate? That’s the feeling I got when I opened Di Reed’s collection of short stories The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate.
Regular readers will be familiar with the sorts of books I’m comfortable reviewing. I like horror and fast-paced thrillers. I like action-packed pulp fiction reprints and graphic novels. For an English Literature graduate, my reading habits are staggeringly low-brow. I’m far happier with a Clive Cussler book than something by Haruki Murakami. Whenever the shortlist for the Booker prize is released, I take note of all the titles and add them to my list of “Books that will make my head hurt”. LitFic is something I tend to keep a wide berth from, not because I struggle with it, but simply that I read to be entertained rather than enlightened. A shocking admission, I know... If there’s a choice between car chases and existential angst, the screech of tires on tarmac gets my vote every time.
There are no car chases in The Big Book of Death, Sex and Chocolate. Nor are there any supernatural beings, square-jawed heroes or ninjas. Rather, it is a collection of short stories that deal with the three eponymous themes. It’s intelligent, artfully-written stuff that cannot be raced through in an afternoon but rewards careful reading and reflection. As I have already mentioned, I was not two pages into the book when I knew this would be a tough one to review. I sincerely hope I can do it justice... here goes.
First of all, it is worth mentioning just how talented a writer Di Reed is. I’m not just saying that because we live on the same windswept island in the Outer Hebrides and I’m scared that she might set her sheep on me. I have no ties to the author, who I met selling copies of her book at a local craft fair. I genuinely did not expect to enjoy the collection as much as I did and I certainly did not expect to write such a lengthy review of it.
The title had me two-thirds interested from the start. Everyone likes sex and chocolate (everyone, that is, but eunuchs and diabetics). The death bit seemed a little off-putting, but I was willing to give it a try just in case she managed to slip in a few ninjas. Of the three themes, it is definitely death that gets the most exposure. There are twelve stories in the collection and every one touches on the subject in one form or another (without any recourse to ninjas, much to my disappointment). From the tragic to the satirical to the outright comic, the stories all meditate on the notion of death: whether as a release from the pain of cancer or as an inescapable reality in the natural world. Some of the tales will entertain, with their ironic, satirical swipes. “If I Ruled The World” shows us an assassinated dictator reflecting on his life whilst he waits for an interview with God. Meanwhile, God has problems of his own, dealing with the ever-increasing bureaucracy of heaven. Other tales manage that difficult two-hander of being blackly comic whilst remaining utterly plausible. The recurring character of Dottie is a fantastic example of this. In “End Papers” she refuses to acknowledge how close her husband is to death as he slips away in a hospice. After his funeral her own self-centered nature takes over as she subconsciously decides to become sick herself. In “I Told You I Was Ill” Dottie is a full-blown hypochondriac who relishes her regular visits to her despairing doctor. The doctor, meanwhile, ponders how to break the news to her least favourite patient that Dottie actually has terminal cancer. Pretty dark stuff, so much so that I found myself feeling guilty for laughing at the terrible situations Reed places her characters in.
The most challenging story in the collection is “Three Crusades” where a pregnant woman named Carrie, her partner and their unborn child all consider the moral implications of her impending appointment at the abortion clinic. The tale lacks the subtlety of the other stories but is still effective, regardless of how distasteful some may find the subject matter.
Thankfully, Reed chooses to end the collection with “Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die”. Despite the title, the tale provides an uplifting, optimistic coda to the collection as Carrie gives birth to her child. Birth is a new beginning, not just for the child but for Carrie, who appears less selfish and emotionally mature enough to cope with motherhood and the responsibilities it entails.
Sex has little to do with romance in the stories. Rather, it is linked to lust and uncontrollable desire that can lead to death. “The Meaning of Life” is narrated by a male black widow spider who considers his purpose in life and wonders why sex and death are so inextricably linked for members of his species. Similarly, sex and death go hand in hand in “The Little Death” where an actress prepares for the shoot of her first sex-scene. It’s not the easiest acting job, the scene involving a rather kinky sex game of asphyxiation, the kind of which normally indulged in by rock stars, Tory politicians and David Carradine. The fact that her boyfriend is the cameraman makes filming the scene just that little bit more awkward.
Out of all the tales, it is “Death by Chocolate” that most effectively links the three themes of death, sex and chocolate. A policeman investigates the death of a man whose passion for the sweet stuff developed into a truly bizarre psycho-sexual love-triangle suicide-pact involving a bathtub, an insulin overdose and chocolate death masks. The confectionary munched on by the police officers no longer tastes quite so sweet at the end of the story. Despite the morbid connection between sex and death, Reed’s agenda is not anti-sex. In “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” a pre-op transsexual describes her job as a sex-line operator and wonders why people make such efforts to disguise or suppress their own sexual desires. The tale possesses a remarkably liberal “do as thou wilt” attitude that is very refreshing.
The stories all exist within the same world, with characters and events overlapping in many of the tales. This provides the book with a sense of cohesion lacking from so many other short story collections. Indeed, the stories work so well as a group that to read any of them individually would be to lose some of the more subtle narrative threads that Reed has woven into the fabric of the book.
A collection of short stories juggling such weighty issues – flitting between moments of sublime comedy and solemn contemplation – is not altogether easy to get one’s head around. The peculiar mix of humour and sorrow, the serious and the strange means that at first glance it can appear to be unsure of what it is. Read a little closer and you’ll see just how clever that is, as the book has a bit of something for everyone. Except ninjas.
Read the author interview here.
Hereward L.M. Proops