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Book Review A dazzling period pastiche

ANDY HEDGECOCK recommends a fiction that offers luminous insights into the complexities of being human

True North
by Sara Maitland
Comma Press, hardback £14.99

SARA MAITLAND has been described as a writer of religious fantasy, a magical realist and a bold interpreter of traditional fairy tales. She is all three, but these labels fail to capture the versatility, craft and depth of an author who has pushed the short story beyond its traditional limitations. 

True North is a collection of 16 tales selected by Maitland’s friends, co-workers and family members. It spans 40 years of her writing and highlights the potential of short fiction as a means of interrogating ideas, reflecting on moral dilemmas and making sense of human experience.

Four of the stories, developed through conversations with scientists, merge myth with cutting-edge research. The Beautiful Equation considers autism and the complex interaction of twins in the light of Dirac’s equation — the mathematical formulation that foreshadowed the discovery of anti-matter.

Congenital abnormality, family secrets and the oppressive potential of extreme intimacy are the unsettling ingredients of Seeing Double, while the curious encounter at the heart of Moss Witch raises issues of ecological fragility and human intervention. In Her Bonxie Boy, a lyrical exploration of seabird migration and shapeshifting is intercut with sharp and compelling dialogue.

Another prominent strand of Maitland’s fiction is the deconstructed fairy tale. In True North, this is represented by remixes of stories collected by The Brothers Grimm. Based on a widely told tale from medieval Europe, The Swans is given an explicitly gothic aesthetic and infused with vivid and unsettling imagery.

In Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel Revisited, Maitland focuses on life after the key events of the traditional tales and in both cases her characters undermine and revise the narratives made popular by the Grimms.  

Two of the collection’s standout tales have historical settings and an overtly political edge. In An Edwardian Tableau, a young, upper-class woman experiences a shift in political consciousness when she witnesses police brutality against suffragettes. Integrity compels her to speak out — causing outrage at her parents’ dinner party and risking her prospects of marriage.

The quality of Maitland’s writing inspires emotional investment in the outcome: this is a dazzling period pastiche, the dialogue is witty and compelling and the woman’s emotional turmoil is expressed with complete conviction.

Set in the aftermath of the poll tax riots of 1381, the The Pardon List is another emotionally charged story of political awakening. A woman who has experienced hardship, rejection and isolation finds redemption in protest and refuses to compromise her beliefs.  

On the surface, the tales in True North are accessible and entertaining, but Maitland’s writing is deceptive. Some of her narratives draw on the plots, sentence structure and tone of traditional fables, then veer into strange territory by tackling multiple themes, exploring psychological development over time and rejecting conventional notions of closure.

This is a fine collection, a treasure trove of philosophical conjecture, striking imagery, beautifully contrived ambiguity and, best of all, luminous insights into the complexities of being human.

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