Literature is full of ‘doubles’: characters who seem to move in tandem; or twins, whose familial bond and similarities are frequently employed for farcical effect. In Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, for example, the sense of a clear identity becomes a tangled mess as Viola, in disguise as a boy called Cesario, falls in love with Duke Orsino, who loves Olivia; Viola has to deliver Orsino’s love letters to Olivia, who quickly falls in love with her as Cesario. Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother who she thought had died, enters on stage, and Olivia is soon smitten with him.
Where was I?
When we read ‘The Family Whistle’ in the new collection of short stories by Gerard Woodward then the truism that ‘doubles’ in narrative can also create conflict and discord becomes patently clear. The sense of being haunted by a parallel figure lends itself nicely to the short story as a form. It produces a powerful hysteria (so exciting for an short story!) but such energy would be difficult to sustain across an entire novel.
The relationship between identity and memory is an interesting concept to explore in short form. That characters carry with them a history (internalised, and one which is frequently complex, as in Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’, for instance) but if that history and memory is lost – what then? In Woodward’s ‘Legoland’ story the narrator gets a phone call from a consultant neurologist in a hospital who has a patient with amnesia and the only lead to his identity is the narrator’s phone number found on a playing card. The unknown man persuades our narrator to take him home and shadows him at work to see if anyone can recognise him. The story is suspended in mid-air, like the rides at Windsor’s Legoland near where the man with amnesia was found wandering.
We hop on a loop-de-loop rollercoaster ride for ‘The Underhouse’ story: a man sets about creating a mirror image sitting room underneath his actual sitting room and makes the ceiling a floor, intentionally disorientating his guests. You see, a room gets a double, too.
This sense of the double in short stories can also run in to your own interpretation of the story that you are reading – your impression of the narrative can be different from the writer’s intention, or it can vary from the person reading it next to you. Although, because this is an extremely accessible collection to absorb, I would say the reading experience will be one of shared delight. Woodward really tests the realms of imagination (sometimes to a bizarrely surprising extent); but if he were to match those ambitions in his lexical choices then it would probably be too much.
I really enjoyed this book.
‘Legoland’ by Gerard Woodward was published on 11th February 2016 by Picador books.
My copy was kindly provided by the publisher to review.