304pp, hardback, £15.99
Reviewed by Sara Maitland
Dinesh Allirajah was something of a magician. (Was? No, as this collection demonstrates, is something of a magician) Like all magic, his stories are a combination of weird and delightful ideas combined with remarkable technical skill. I wanted to write ‘sleight-of-hand’ but that suggests trickery and though there may well be an element of that in all performance, underneath the cunning there is real deep knowledge and – dare I say – competence. Read ‘A Different Sky’, for example, and as well as being both moved and amused you should also be stunned at what a writer can do with a basic old trick like a flashback. Rather unexpectedly, I was reminded of Angela Carter’s first collection of short stories, Fireworks (1974). Like that collection, Scent opens up the formal possibilities of short form fiction without being ponderous or remotely ‘solemn’ – pyrotechnics like Carter’s in the service of a radical political vision.
Really solid writerly technique, we see here, sets a writer free to explore unpromising ideas, unexpected nuances and the general bizarre wonderfulness of things. Above all there is a profound and serious playfulness in these stories. It is sadly unusual and therefore a real relief to read a radical progressive fiction that is predominantly, even gloriously, joyful – playful, hopeful. The range of subject matter and mood in these twenty-five short stories is extraordinary – there is a kind of joyful flamboyance undergirded with a serious love of the business of being human or, more precisely, of being a Scouser! (I am prejudiced here – my son is a self-adopted Liverpudlian and now, reading these stories, for the first time I fully understand why.) It is very rare, I admit, for me to read something and wish that I had written it, but a couple of these stories made me feel that – ‘A Memory of Sap’ brought on a heady mixture of envy, admiration, delight and ambition.
There is a sad irony in the fact that we have this collection now because Allirajah died at 47 in 2014. This is his ‘collected works’; although it does not include his song writing it does include twenty poems (which I very much enjoyed but do not really feel qualified to comment on here) and extracts from his Blog, which – unnervingly, given the outcome – takes us all the way deep into his final illness and hospitalization, but which, more substantially, makes his vision for culture (writing in particular) as a vehicle in radical transformation wonderfully and ebulliently clear. I never met him but, quite apart from anything else, he comes over as a very nice person. This book ought to be a beginning not an end.
For people seriously interested in the contemporary short story the twenty-five in this collection are more than ‘worth studying’ – they are worth ‘reading, marking learning and inwardly digesting’. For people who just like to read fiction, even if they do not presently know that they like reading short stories, I would strongly recommend giving these a try. The book is a joy.