Singing a Man to Death, a collection of short stories, is notable for its range, sophistication, and readability. The fictions cover a range of milieus from England to Pacific islands to semi-mythical territories; ages from the contemporary to early medieval; and a range of 'realisms' from the naturalistic to the supernatural to the magic-realism. Displaying linguistic range and richness, characters are stranded in or confronted by disorientating milieus. ...A strong collection.
This is story-telling at it's best: innovative, engaging, accessible, yet layered with allusion and wit, these compelling stories are completely satisfying. A dazzling display of what a short story can achieve.
Publisher: Cinnamon Press
Number of pages: 160
Dimensions: 198 x 130 x 12 mm
Singing a Man to Death is a collection of short stories by Matthew Francis, poet, academic, novelist and short story writer. It is, quite simply, an excellent display of how great short stories can be.
With collections of stories from one writer, like albums by one musician, there's often a tendency towards repetition of tone, theme and subject matter - the same issues tackled by similar characters but from slightly differing angles. However, Singing a Man to Death keeps its freshness by dramatically shifting all of these from story to story. Taking in American academia, a British lodging house and a Middle Eastern mountain amongst others, Francis is nothing if not varied in his many settings. Similarly, we jump forward and back tens and hundreds of years from one story to the next. The only thing unifying these stories as a collection is their sheer quality.
In the opening story, we are taken back to a rented student room in the 1970s. This title story, 'Singing a Man to Death', sets the tone for the quality of the rest of the book as Francis presents the search for a song that can kill its listener and describes the concept perfectly. At the end of the first paragraph, Francis casually drops in the fantastically poetic line, 'You could probably kill someone using memories if you kept at it long enough'. Not only is the story poignant and poetic, it's also full of humour. At one point, the confusion over the location of Kettering leads one character to describe it as 'so unthere it didn't even exist'.
Elsewhere in the collection, sadness comes in the form of a dead school acquaintance in 'The Lovers', a great story that explores friendships, loose and strong. 'American Fugue', the tale of a poet's fugue withdrawal from society, is in many ways the perfect short story - vivid, real, almost flippant, yet tackling the big questions - and 'Demonland' takes the reader to tropical climes that one is never quite sure are real or fictional.
'Sleevenotes', however, is where this collection really peaks. Taking the rewriting of the same five hundred words as a way of exploring friendship, music, nostalgia and perspectives on the past, Francis achieves so much in such a short space. Written in the form of draft sleevenotes for the 'Best of ...' the fictional band Colin Crab and the Ptomaines, the story is at once hilarious, sad, reflective and angry.
It's fitting that Francis teaches creative writing; for anyone looking for good examples of the short story as a form, this collection could be held up to illustrate best practice. He is original, fresh, poetic and sophisticated, but above all else, intensely enjoyable. A book well worth reading. -- Liam Nolan @ www.gwales.com