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Book Review: Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall

Hair Side, Flesh Side
by Helen Marshall
November 15, 2012
Trade paperback
$11.87 (paperback). Also available as an ebook edition for $9.95.
Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Description: A child receives the body of Saint Lucia of Syracuse for her seventh birthday. A rebelling angel rewrites the Book of Judgement to protect the woman he loves. A young woman discovers the lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. A 747 populated by a dying pantheon makes the extraordinary journey to the beginning of the universe. Lyrical and tender, quirky and cutting, Helen Marshall’ s exceptional debut collection weaves the fantastic and the horrific alongside the touchingly human in fifteen modern parables about history, memory, and cost of creating art.

When I first heard about Helen Marshall’s collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side and read the brief description, it seemed like a book written with geeks like me in mind ;-) Her focus on book history, rare manuscripts, literary conjectures, and the other subject matter this fellow Canuck writer, Marshall, has put together, is, in one word, fantastic.

In the first story, “Blessed”, a little girl gets an unusual present on her birthday from her dad and stepmother, for when she comes to visit him. They give her Lucia of Syracuse, an actual martyr who died in 304. The body. They say she can’t tell her biological mother, Clare, who she lives with. Some girls want barbies for their birthday. This one wants an authentic martyr. There are five girls in her grade who claimed to have Catherine of Siena. Chloe can’t resist showing off to one of her classmates, who gets peeved that she wasn’t supposed to get it yet before her birthday and that her real mom would also give her a finger and she would have two, so the girl tells her mom, who tells Chloe’s mom, who destroys the finger, then calls Chloe’s dad to tell him that she’s going to get Chloe Joan of Arc, who does come, but at a great cost. It’s actually sort of funny in parts when we see what Joan does, and although the ending is gruesome, it makes for a great story that starts off the collection on a distinct note.

Most Jane Austen fans know that “Sanditon” refers to an unfinished novel by the “Pride and Prejudice” scribe, and Marshall’s knowledge of the author shows in this tale of an editor, Hanna, and her writer, Gavin, with whom she begins to have an affair against her better judgment. After her first indiscretion, she gets a tattoo on her neck that she thinks is an indicator of cancer, but when she discovers what it actually is, it makes for a disturbing chain of events. It’s one of the most unusual and also most interesting stories. Even if you’re not an Austen fan, you will enjoy the way this chilling tale unfolds.

Delving deep into the author’s knowledge of rare manuscripts, “A Texture Like Velvet” is told in the style of an epistolary, an exchange of letters between a female professor and Professor Jeffrey M. Beeler of Oxford. The protagonist reveals she’s found a rare manuscript in the Bibliotheca Estense in Modena, “a small volume written on a fine vellum much damaged by fire,” one of the earliest copies of a work thought to be attributed to Aristotle. She thinks it’s from Heliopolis, and has travelled to Egypt to verify the manuscript’s provenance. Not only is the book the real deal, it’s written on human skins. Trouble is, there are more like this one out there, made in the same way.

She can’t compel herself to stop the production of these manuscripts or doesn’t think she could if given the choice, because it’s preserving rare works of antiquity. She starts describing her guide as she might the pages of a human-bound manuscript, and her rising delirium is frightening, and leads to an uncertain but foreboding ending.

“The Old and the New” reveals the protagonist, Becca, exploring the catacombs of Paris with her new lover, John, a guy she met at work who, until recently, was married to a bombshell beauty that just disappeared without a trace. At first, she kept her office romance fantasies to herself, but became more emboldened once wifey was out of the picture. She watched him from afar, and he only started to notice her after his wife was, quite literally, out of the picture. In a “Back to the Future”-ish twist, he reveals his wife started disappearing limb by limb until all her things started to vanish into thin air. But then his obsession with the skulls turns into a startling revelation, also with a foreboding, ominous ending.

Not one to leave out one of the other great English female novelists, “No Ghosts in London” is something of an homage to Emily Bronte, sort of like a mini-Gothic novel. Gwendolyn lives at Hardwick Hall until her mother passes away, and Gwen stays on to mind the manor. The servants are fine, but the ghosts give her a hard time. But the story turns modern as Gwen moves to London and makes friends with Cindy. After graduation, she shacks up with a Harvard MBA grad, and invites her to Chicago, but circumstances force Gwen to go back to the manor. Things get a bit existential as they taper off near the climactic ending.

In “Pieces of Broken Things” Carolina, no longer content with her marriage to David, and verging on 40, gets her heart replaced with a clock. She takes away her love from David. She doesn’t have any more time to spend with him, she says. She has no more love and he has too much. His grief takes on interesting shapes.

In “The Mouth, Open,” we find the protagonist, Jonah, a bit tired of his domestic un-bliss, so he goes to Dubrovnik with his sister, her husband, and his cousins. He keeps dreaming of eating people to fill the void he feels from Sarah leaving him. A deep-seated change is overtaking him, and soon Sarah becomes the least of his worries.

Young girls can often be jealous of the affection their mothers provide to men who aren’t their biological father, and this is certainly how things start out for our protagonist in “Lines of Affection.” When she meets her dad’s girlfriend, the woman is strange, exotic, and new, and Melissa is inexplicably drawn to her while simultaneously being creeped out. Usually kids wish for their parents to get back together, but in this case, things turn out a bit differently.

Other stand-out pieces for me included “The Book of Judgement,” which is also decidedly gothic, and also about Jane Austen, who is being told she is going to die. She’s actually debating with an Angel of the Lord, who interacts with Azrael, the Angel of Death, who has been “taken off” warfare. It can be a bit confusing to follow along because of the tense it’s written in, which is mostly “Let us imagine she was doing this” and “Let us say she was sitting at her desk” and the constructions are a bit awkward to get through, but nevertheless, it’s still a well-woven tale. It’s as much a personal homage to Austen as it is a fantastical tale that imagines how Death and Angels may have communicated with her prior to her dying. It feels like a love letter to the author, and is almost written in her style, as well.

In “The Art of Dying,” the story starts off with a girl, Clarissa, who knows she is going to die in ten days. But then, “She always knows when she will die, can tick away the seconds on her finger like a clock winding down.” It’s almost like there’s a spirit inhabiting Clarissa’s body, which reminded me a bit of “Sliding Doors” She claims her other self’s name is “Amanda” and she doesn’t know who she is, switching between these two lives. This line left me particularly chilled: “People do not realize how early the body senses its own death.”

In “Dead White Men” a guy named Ernie chats up Celia, a vivacious woman in a bar. They meet for a rendez-vous and proceed to shag in a church on top of a grave. She claims she likes to do it with the dead, or rather the places where they’re buried. He’s convinced he’s in love with her, but she counsels him to find someone else to love. This story also has some shades of similarity to “Sanditon” but in this case, it’s almost like Ernie feels the writer’s juices ebbing from him when he comes to be with Celia.

And in “Eternal Things,” a woman is thinking of getting it on with Stephen, an Oxford professor who is concerned with a job opening for a Middle English teaching position at Oxford. They live in the same area of Oxford, on Cowley Road, which is the least posh place to live there, and dangerous. The main character, perhaps like Marshall herself, questions how something so exciting as a 600 year-old manuscript can seem so dull so quickly, so “been there done that,” which I can believe. Things take on an interesting turn when one of the authors whose works she has studied makes an appearance and they have a chat.

They say that all the great writers have a vast, inimitable style (or many styles), often duplicated but never truly replicated, because it’s clear who is the original and who is doing a knock-off. Helen Marshall has one of those distinctive voices, and seems to use a plethora of styles at times, taking on the points of view of many varied characters, and travelling far and wide from locale to locale in this collection, transporting us to new places both in the sense of different cities, a character of a different race or the gender opposite ours, and it comes off as a balanced collection.

I almost feel like Marshall could have also called this collection “Uncontrollable Bodies” as each story deals with some sort of a physical manifestation of a large change that occurs in the characters that line these pages, but even if it didn’t have the significant title of Hair Side, Flesh Side which only a true bibliophile would get the reference to, it’s an expertly-crafted, well-woven tapestry of words that will leave you amazed long after you’ve finished the last page.

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