Fiona McFarlane’s first novel was an insidious thriller in disguise. ‘The Night Guest’ started as an ordinary story, then the plot skilfully shifted, hurling the elderly main character into a nightmare which she was trying desperately to escape. McFarlane’s imagination, originality, and her ability to surprise readers has resurfaced in ‘The High Places’, her first published collection of short stories.
Most of the tales depict everyday people, whose lives are disrupted by an extraordinary event; a young couple, newly married, are in a car accident in ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ and a young man’s mother wins the lottery in ‘Art Appreciation’.
Stand-out stories include ‘Buttony’, which was previously published in The New Yorker; about a bored school teacher who receives a vicious retribution while supervising a playground game and ‘Mycenae’; about two couples reuniting while on holiday in Greece.
Some of the stories are set during war time while others have a fantasy element, creating a dreamy, nostalgic feeling. Almost all of these 13 tales will leave you with that unsettled feeling that McFarlane is so good at orchestrating.
Some of the stranger stories are almost like fables. In ‘Violet’, Violet, a suspicious budgie, is well over 100 years old and in ‘Movie People’ a community in a small country town leave the modern world behind and choose to live in the past. One of the longer stories, ‘Good News for the Modern Man’, is about a mad scientist mystified and mesmerised by the giant squid he has caught and named Mabel.
If you enjoy ‘The High Places’, read ‘The Beautiful Indifference’ by Sarah Hall, another great collection of mysterious short stories that will leave you questioning and uncertain.