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February 3, 2014 / ljbradburn-Smith

Smoke and Mirrors

smoke and mirrors

Since watching Stardust, a few years back, I had the impression that the person who wrote it was funny, dark and a definite invite to a fantasy dinner party. I suspected that I would love whoever had written it and I was right.

I started reading Smoke and Mirrors around my friends’, Nick and Em’s, house after Nick said he had a book that he thought I would enjoy. Normally I would have put the book away and taken it home for later. I like to think of myself as a fairly social being after all, and, as much as it sometimes pains me, I know that reading at a party is not generally the done thing. But, as everyone was settling down to watch a film and as they are good friends, who I doubted would mind, I started reading. I’m not actually sure what the film was but I am sure that missing it was worthwhile to get my first glimpse of Gaiman’s writing.

I have to admit that I have not really read a book of short stories since I was young, I have always chosen to get stuck into a novel, believing that the depth and longevity, were things I needed. I was right about needing the depth but very wrong to think it could only be truly gained from a novel, certainly in this case anyway. To liken it to food (quite appropriate given some of Gaiman’s stories) reading each piece was like a taking a mouthful of an incredibly velvety, rich chocolate cake, you only needed a bite to get the whole flavour. It was enough. Each story was just enough.

As Gaiman himself says the process and mechanics of writing fascinate him and this can be seen through this multi-genre book, the fact that he plays around with the structure of  his stories and that authors appear as protagonists. The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories depicts the journey from book to film and the adaptation of a story beyond recognition. Presumably Gaiman has had this experience, in fact, I am yet to read Stardust but have been told that it is quite different in book form.

He experiments with traditional form and the linearity of stories, often beginning in the middle or at the end. Gaiman is both so expressive and so skillful, as a writer, that his imagination never seems bound by his pen or the limits of reality, despite the fact that by his own admission several of these stories were left abandoned at some time or another until inspiration struck once more.

Like the structure of his stories the structure of the book, as a whole, was interesting too. In his lengthily introduction Gaiman explains a little bit about the pieces in Smoke and Mirrors and his inspiration for each of them. This added context and was interesting because it explored the process of writing and where ideas come from. At first I read each little ‘story behind the story’ before I read the story (that’s a mouthful!) but half way through I decided to read the introduction to the story afterwards to see which themes I picked up on and what I thought it was really about, because after all the writer’s interpretation is never the only one. I think I preferred it that way round, because unlike a film, when I like to at least know vaguely what it is about before I watch it, I like the mystery in books. It might also be a habit left over from my University days when I would have to read the book first and then attend the lecture.

Most, if not all, of the stories in Smoke and Mirrors focused on the darker parts of life with reoccurring themes of magic, manipulation, spirituality, hell, fairy tales, vampirism, consumerism, primal instincts, and sexual peversities all unashamedly presented for the reader to experience through the eyes of an incredibly imaginative writer. One of the themes that Gaiman explores is the idea of the bad in the world existing but being contained in some form or another. In The Price a cat guards the barrier between Earth and Hell, in How Do You Think it Feels? it is a gargoyle that shields a heart and in The Wedding Present, it was a story itself that protected the characters. In Gaiman’s world the dark is never far away from the light and the mundane is never independent from the strange.

It’s hard to pick favourites from Smoke and Mirrors because each piece of writing is so unique and meaningful but if I was held at gunpoint I would have to say that mine were The Wedding Present, The Price, The Disappearance of Miss Finch, The Queen of Knives and Snow, Glass, Apples. Eaten and Babycakes were the stories that disturbed me the most and Chivalry made me smile.

In all of Gaiman’s narratives his characters are so distinctive, in voice, that it is clear how much of himself goes into them. That’s not to say that all of the surreal plot twists were taken from his life but more that to write a piece he has to believe in it and has to be able to place himself inside the story, in some form or another. In fact he says himself that the events of Queen of Knives is so close to what actually happened that he has to remind relatives that it isn’t really the case.

Gaiman’s book reminded me of some of my most vivid dreams, pieces of life strung together in bizarre but somehow very real ways. It resonated with me the same way that the memories of fragmented nightmares or feelings of forgotten fears do. Much like in dreams (mine at least) none of these pieces seem superficial or vague and everything feels as though it has a deeper meaning or a secret you are supposed to search for.

It feels to me, so much more than it has before, that I am getting to see inside an author’s mind and that he in turn can see into the very depths of the world. Gaiman is dazzlingly perceptive, x-rated and possibly the most interesting and terrifying author I have come across. His insight into life is so much scarier than a horror could ever be.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was that I hadn’t read it sooner.

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7 Comments

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  1. Nick Capehorn / Feb 3 2014 10:53 am

    Lovely review Lyd, and so glad you enjoyed it. You’ll have to check out other stuff by him now – I can lend you American Gods which is a v.interesting concept on human beliefs and the relationship between stuff existing and us believing stuff exists.

    On Smoke & Mirrors, Babycakes is indeed a disturbing read, but I struggle to think of something that does a job so well – it was, after all, written for a PETA publication and is the only thing that’s made me think that eating meat is wrong.

    The animal testing is always wrong, but things like food and leather jackets are just an acceptable part of being a human. I still eat meat, so it didn’t fully succeed, but it got closer in a couple of hundred words than some very expensive and elaborate campaigns ever have.

    On the rest of the book, Chivalry made me smile too – mainly because the main character seems like everyone’s nan or auntie, coveting things just because they look nice on their mantlepiece, which is lovely.

    And Snow. Glass. Apples was great – out of all of them, that’s the one that’s crying to be made into a film, if it can be padded out. A great rewriting of a well-known tale in a way that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done. And that, ultimately, is what’s great about Gaiman. He takes stories we’ve all heard before and re-crafts them in such a way that we never have heard them before, and so his stuff is always fresh and unique.

    • ljbradburn / Feb 3 2014 11:12 am

      There is so much to say about this book that it was difficult not to do an individual review for each short story! Maybe I will one day. I agree a million percent about Babycakes, I have never felt so guilty before about eating meat and that is saying something, I struggle with it anyway, always teetering on the edge of vegetarianism and I hope that it has taught me to be less of a hypocrite.

      Snow, Glass, Apples would make an amazing film, if it is anything like I imagine it would be on the screen it would be a visual masterpiece!

      I’ve bought Stardust but would love to borrow American Gods, i’ll swap you Smoke and Mirrors for it 😉

      Thanks again for the lend and for introducing me to Gaiman. I am going to keep him 🙂 x

  2. karleegould / Feb 3 2014 6:25 pm

    Sounds excellent! I’ll be reading that bad-boy.

    I’m certain B would prefer shorter stories, with a ton of depth to them, so I may even recommend it to him (not that lengthy books are current a turn-off fit him. He’s just taken on the Lord of the Rings).

    Wicked review, really want to read these =D

    • karleegould / Feb 3 2014 6:27 pm

      *currently a turn-off for him.

      • ljbradburn / Feb 6 2014 8:52 am

        Thanks baby! I think B would quite like it too 🙂 Lord of the Rings has been on my ‘to read’ list for years but I have never quite got round to it for some reason!

        Let me know what you guys think xxx

  3. calmgrove / Feb 6 2014 12:02 am

    I echo the judgement that this is an excellent review. I read S & M a while ago but admit I’d forgotten several of the plots but remember the atmospheres created quite vividly.

    • ljbradburn / Feb 6 2014 9:04 am

      Thank you, I wasn’t sure if I should have gone in to a bit more detail about some of the plots but I think I would have gone on forever and, like you say, I think the atmospheres created and the feelings the book provoked will be the things that stay will me most! 🙂

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