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The stories in Adam Marek’s new collection are addictively off-kilter. They explore strange presents and even stranger futures: nano-suits, interspecies cloning, superhero dictators and earthquake-inducing seizures all make an appearance. But the real mystery at the heart of these powerful stories is rooted in the troubling dual nature of our attitude to children.
A cast of children, linked by their vulnerability, populates the stories. A child is the focus of love, worry and obsession. But this fragility has a flip-side: the Midwich-Cuckoo fear of the fundamentally unknowable child.
In the title story of the collection, “The Stone Thrower”, Hal wakes to find the chickens at his holiday house being killed off one by one by a boy throwing stones from impossibly far away, impossibly accurately. The story is relentless, open-ended, unsettling. It makes the point of the collection most clearly: Hal is desperate to protect the chickens, in lieu of his own kids. This need to keep safe almost overrides any examination of the the attack from the stone-throwing child, whose motivations defy understanding.
In “Without a Shell”, a school takes the protection of its pupils to extremes, encasing them in nano-suits that heal wounds. But for teenager Bucky, the only way to penetrate the codes of adult friendship and love is to make himself more vulnerable.
“An Industrial Evolution” has the strangest offspring: orangutans saved from extinction by a human surrogate mother, only to become slaves to capitalism on a plantation staffed by strangely human orangutan workers.
Some of the children are isolated by the emotional damage caused by their parents. In “Fewer Things”, as a man and his son search a cliff top, removing knuckle-fish from the throats of fragile baby terns, the boy struggles to understand his parent’s broken marriage and his mother’s abandonment of him.
In the fantastic and chilling “The Stormchasers”, a vaguely sinister atmosphere hangs like a cloud over an apparently loving relationship between a father and a son, only breaking in the last lines.
Other stories play on the aching grief that a child’s disability can cause a parent. In “A Thousand Seams”, a boy is so fragile that a fight with his brother could kill him; “Earthquakes” is a disturbing plea for a charitable donation from a mother whose son’s fits can cause tremors. “Santa Clara Day” centres around an annual festival at which a teenage boy must ceremonially fight off toothless sharks, but it’s another boy with an autistic spectrum disorder who is the vulnerable heart of the story.
Marek’s pace is fast; you struggle to find your footing with each story, the where and the why pushing you along, the end often unexpectedly pulling a rug from under you. He also uses the power of first lines to punch an opening in many of the stories. “Fewer Things” starts with the rhythmic “We go down to the beach at dawn to stop the chicks from choking”; “Tamagotchi” with the macabre and funny “My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS”; and the matter-of-fact shock of “The taste of porridge was still in Bucky’s mouth when he saw the guy explode”, from “Without a Shell”.
These are varied and entertaining stories. A combination of the everyday with the futuristic, and the vaguely fantastical with the prosaic, makes it a memorable collection. The stories are likely to stay in the back of your mind for a long time, returning in worrying bursts like stones hurled from nowhere.
The Stone Thrower is Adam Marek’s second short story collection. Thanks to Comma Press for providing a review copy.
London Book Launch
Saturday, 27 October; 6-8pm.
The Story Salon at The Society Club, 12 Ingestre Place, Soho, London W1F OJF.
Emily Cleaver is Litro's Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at smallplays.com and see more of her writing at emilycleaver.net.