Reviewed in the United States on July 25, 2020
Daniel Mason’s collection of nine short stories that cover a range of eras and places, topics, and themes, begins with 'Death of a Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw' which captured my attention from the first words.
Born a winter child in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “The Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would come to battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a son of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy.
Seventeen rounds of physical battering as this boxing match is shared so vividly, you can sense the tension, feel the sweat being slung around as bodies are battered and tossed around this ring, hear the jeers and cheers and see it all.
In 'The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace' a British collector of fossil, flower, beetle, stone, even as a child, a story that follows his life in the Malay Archipelago. Nature filled him with an ecstasy that at times felt like lust.
"Sometimes, during the night, she wakes to a presence, a creature sliding through the darkness, watching, waiting to descend. She doesn’t dare to look; to move even slightly is to risk waking the child, and it’s for him she knows the ghost has come." This story, On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases, in the Midst of the Smoke of London is a story of a mother and her son.
A Frenchman responsible for maintaining a lone railway station in the Amazon rainforest, with little connection to the outside world is the focus for 'The Line Agent Pascal.' "For the truth was that, however distant his colleagues were, he’d come to understand them intimately over the years, could describe each man, each station, with details he had never seen." He knows Pinto who is at Varzea Nova from his requests for medicine, knows he has a wife and daughter and that Pinto has lumbago, and similarly, he knows the men at all the stations, the ins and outs of their lives. Much like we come to know each other on social media, through the details shared over time.
In 'On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c' a woman, Celeste, is an aeronaute, a balloonist who writes her sister as this story begins, ”…something has driven me skyward … Even my baptismal name has felt like some hint of destiny." She shares her story of a flight where she ascends higher than anyone else had, when her eye catches a 'strange vision', a 'tear, a rent in the firmament'. Her husband, Pierre, seeks to capitalize on this while scientists disbelieve, and so she is sent back up – this time with a man who is sure to be more rational, believable.
'A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth 'is shared through letters, reports, a journal-ish sharing of a life. "Beginnings. 22.December.1938 Midnight, accompanied by seven angels on clouds shaped like a stairway, they left me at the house, at the base of the walls. Sao Clemente Street.number.301.Botafogo.Rio de Janeiro, I alone with lance in hand." This is shared in a foggy dream-like, hallucinogenic quality, by a man whose attachment to reality is somewhat tenuous, shared through his writing, he shows his delusions, obsessions and strangely beautiful thoughts. "Here I register the 9 ways man walks toward things and the 11 ways he flees."
I haven’t covered all of the stories, there are nine in total, but all are worth reading, even if they are not equally captivating. In each story, you will find yourself in a different place, time and find yourself pulled into the life of another person, perhaps in a different place or time, but each will leave you thinking and, if you’re like me, enchanted. This was my introduction to Daniel Mason’s writing, and I look forward to reading more.
Many thanks for the ARC provided by Little, Brown and Company