Pumping Up Napoleon is an assured collection of fifteen short stories with an offbeat take on human relationships, and the relationship of the rather unreliable human body to mind and spirit.
Pumping Up Napoleon is an assured collection of fifteen short stories with an offbeat take on human relationships, and the relationship of the rather unreliable human body to mind and spirit. 'Offbeat' includes dog massage, cloning your own four-foot son for organ transplants, and a university lecturer's romance with a resurrected Napoleon Bonaparte.
Maria's prose style is deceptively direct, even tongue-in-cheek, making the most bizarre, horrific or amusing situations sound everyday. She achieves a great deal of humour, but also wry smiles, sadness and empathy.
Her subject matter is diverse and unexpected, offering unlikely takes on universal themes such as love, growing up, death and art, in settings ranging from the deeply domestic to intergalactic space travel. In a manner reminiscent of a Kate Atkinson short story, she skips over boundaries between the real and imagined as if they did not exist - using the freedom this creates to ensure focus her reader's attention exactly where she wants it.
Some stories explore the lives of single women, tentatively reaching out for romance they may or may not want: farcically in 'The New Adventures of Andromeda' (Perseus is badly late and then wants to reschedule) and more tenderly in 'The Love I Carry' and 'The Dancing King'. Death is a recurring theme, whether macabre, bitterly funny ('Burying Dad'), sad or peacefully hilarious ('The Transit of Moira'). But the author's light touch allows for a darker strand to surface repeatedly - dislocated, lonely lives, out of sync with their surroundings - set alongside the oddity and tenderness of human relationships.
Maria Donovan's writing is mature and structured. Even her titles 'My Cousin's Breasts') or first sentences ('When she hears she is going to die soon, Mother decides to hold a party.') instantly command attention. Her understated style and extremely well-crafted stories constantly surprise and engage, producing a fine, hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking collection.
Marjorie had been in love with Napoleon for some time before his resurrection. She was one of those women who has to be in love with someone. It was a kind of addiction, something she aspired to control by only allowing herself to become enamoured of men she couldn't have.
Her admirers had always been mainly fictional. They visited for five minutes at bed-time, inevitably said the right thing and knew exactly when to shut up. The bliss of being able to roll over and fall asleep without thinking of someone else's needs and desires.
This is a slim volume of very readable contemporary short stories, ideal for dipping in and out of, some being barely four pages in length. The shortest is 'The New Adventures of Andromeda', a brief and witty demonstration of why an outspoken modern woman might not thrive in the mythological world.
The collection starts breezy, brisk, honest and sharp.
These are stories that focus on the self-consciousness and awkwardness of all kinds of relationships, from schoolgirl crushes and competitiveness to the social hazards of the first meeting of a fianc's parents.
There are also stories that move beyond the familiar into science fiction futures, but very successfully retain insights into the human responses to the imagined scenarios.
The title story is the most far-fetched, charting the miraculous reanimation of the eponymous Emperor, courtesy of a scientific breakthrough reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
His subsequent disintegration, both physical and social, from initial glorious comeback to mute, pathetic demise again, is unexpectedly touching as he allows himself to become wordlessly close to one of the few people left willing to take him seriously.
The mood shifts between stories, with some unexpected changes of style and tone through the book.
But all the stories have a dark element to them, and the most successful indulge this to a greater extent, voicing very human fears of isolation, loneliness and the struggle to understand the world around us.
Donovan is not afraid to represent the unpleasant and frightening aspects of the human condition, and creates some compelling stories to draw these out.
Some of the images and situations are telling enough to stay with you long after reading them.
Jane Trethewy @ www.gwales.com