05 June 2023

review of The Gogamagog Circus by Garry Kilworth

Not another Kilworth book 

I've already reviewed some, and never expected to say anything about any more, but he's too reliably surprising. I couldn't shut the book and shut up, too.
First, I did the foul deed and posted a review on Amazon because this circus might otherwise be as unseen in the infinity of offerings as a star down the infinity a piece from HD 131496. 
I hate star ratings, but you can't say unless you play their game. So I rated this, but with a 4-star instead of five because I think five should be reserved for the small handful of books I would mentally run into a burning building for. I would throw this one out the window to pack with my favourite bones and dried leaves and other treasures, but not risk my life on it like I would with my depression-era English translation of Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov's The Little Golden Calf and the 1983 Raduga Publishers, Moscow edition of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely with its glossary that attempts to explain such inscrutables as "I'd show you my etching", "a Johnnie Walker nose", and "Cut out the Pig Latin".

That said, this is one magnificent collection. This author is consistent in producing fiction that has so much integrity based on his personal knowledge and experience, that I found myself looking up, say, a place in South Africa after asking a South African if he knew the place (he didn't) because I knew that Kilworth did. And he did. A description of a certain kind of desert is as spot on as others' recall of a John Wick killfest or a scene in today's I Love Lucy: the middle-aged sitcom Seinfeld.
The thing with Kilworth, however, is he doesn't take his inspiration from the screen, nor does he use it for reference. He's done so much and been around to so many places that when he, for instance, writes about being on a small boat in the middle of a vast ocean, and it coming adrift on the razor-reef of a coral atoll, the scene he describes and a reader feels, is more real than any reality show.

Silvia would sometimes ask me whether this or that would make me happy. 'Once we get the new house, will that make you happy?' I didn't believe in happiness as something you bought and kept, like a flash car. Happiness is fleeting, ephemeral, will-o'-the-wisp. It touches you with light fingers, then it's gone up into the ether. I rarely got that feeling while on land, but out here, with the vast vault of the blue sky above and seemingly borderless ocean stretching to infinity all around, happiness came as passing birds on wings of joy.   --from "The Head"

The moral dilemmas (if indeed, a character feels any) are explored in the ways I love the most--with no narrative couching to position the reader's sympathy or condemnation. A first-person POV, for instance, is able to be read by an adult with a knowledge that the reader can make up their own mind about what's happening and the morality of it. This might upset many of today's readers who like to be told who's bad and good, as they have less time than Santa Claus.
Not that this author waffles. He's not a stylist, so each story is told with no self-indulgent puffery, just the tone and POV called for by the story itself. So the book is a "fast read", if you just want to read everything once and race to the next book. I liked this one too much for that.
I particularly loved the stories that slice up society's mores so swiftly, with such a sharp blade, that it's lying there with all parts exposed and quivering before it could evade and scurry away.
Two stories that are prime examples are "The Sleeping Giant" and "The World's Smallest Giant". Both are told as fairy tales, in the best tradition of subterfuge. Here's a scrap from "The World's Smallest Giant" (a previously unpublished story):
Jill went to bed feeling very miserable, but the next morning she was amazed to find a skyscraper in their back garden. Delighted, she went in. It appeared to be all ready for tenants, both residential and office space.
[She then runs into a small, bald, weaselly-looking guy, the owner who introduces himself as a "Giant of Industry"]
The only thing Kilworth gets wrong in this story is the chequebook this little giant pulls out. But by the time you read this review (next week?), his mention of bitcoin could be as outdated as cowrie cash.
Military nous is another trustworthy aspect of this collection as well as other Kilworth fiction. He's written several military series, and had enough experience that nothing he writes reads like he's riffing off flicks or books. So his personal experience combined with his knowledge of and interest in ancient history and world mythology add much to stories placed all over the world and times.
Lastly, one of the features of Kilworth's fiction that he's kept up here is his way with endings. Not for him, the clever twist that is as false as a set of castanetable teeth. His endings are always the product of what has built up in the tension of the story. His last story in the book, "Giant", with its perfect last line, actually made me draw breath.
Quite a read. Not a book to just read once.
This is Garry Kilworth's latest collection, published by Alchemy Press, who hasn't updated the page for this book (grrr) to reflect that it is now out and about
An e-edition is also available now, but I can only find a kindle