This paperback collects two novellas, "Leningrad Nights" by Graham Joyce, and "How The Other Half Lives" by James Lovegrove. These stories are available in a variety of formats: individually in deluxe limited editions from PS Publishing, as part of a larger hardback collection called "Foursight" (in which these two novellas are presented with two more) and now in the paperback "Binary" series.
This has to be considered lavish treatment by a publishing industry not exactly renowned for being at all supportive of the novella format. So is all the fuss warranted?
The book is a presented in 'flip book' format, each story having its own front cover, and consequently presented upside down compared with the other. Decisions, decisions, which story to read first? Flip, flip, flip.
"Leningrad Nights" is set during the "nine hundred days siege" of Leningrad during World War II, when the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany. The Germans had fully encircled Leningrad and the siege lasted from September 1941 till January 1944. Food and fuel stocks were extremely limited. By the winter of 1941-42, in the depths of an unusually cold winter, there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. Hundreds of thousands of people died of cold and starvation. But the city did not surrender.
Against this backdrop, "Leningrad Nights" tells the bleak story of Leo, a young boy who lives in the city while it is bombarded mercilessly and effectively shut off from the rest of Russia. His father has died early in the conflict. His mother soon follows, contracting dysentery and succumbing to infection. Leo's hard, unforgiving Uncle Yevgeny offers only the comment: "She was weak."
When Leo asks what he must do, his Uncle's advice is: "You must survive." "Leningrad Nights" is the story of his attempts to do just that. As Leo's plight becomes ever more desperate, as the city's starvation continues, so the methods by which he keeps himself and others alive become equally desperate.
The fantasy element of the story, which is minimal, is introduced via an opium-soaked tea that Leo obtains from his Uncle. Ingesting the liquid, Leo discovers an alternate Leningrad, cast in a golden glow and complete with an alternate version of himself. Probably he is merely experiencing a drug induced hallucination, but this duality is central to the story.
And indeed there is a wealth of story here, which I have barely hinted at, and this despite the fact that "Leningrad Nights" is relatively short even by novella standards. Inevitably, because it is beautifully written, I did find myself wishing there were more pages - if not a full novel then at least an expansion to perhaps half the length again. But it would be churlish to complain. This is good stuff, and if it is in short supply then we must be grateful for the meagre rations received. I'll follow Leo's example, call it "best steak" and not wink.
And then, on a simply splendid Sunday, I flipped the book over and turned my attention to "How The Other Half Lives," which tells the story of William Ian North. This is a man wielding awesome economic power, a complete bastard who seems to exist only to manipulate the global economic markets in search of ever greater financial reward. One can almost hear the symphonic accompaniment as he conducts his business.
North is chauffeur driven to work each day in a Daimler, eats the finest foods, is serviced by top of the range prostitutes in his afternoon break. Nice work if you can get it. But is his success based entirely on his financial acumen, or is there another explanation?
In North's mansion home, behind a bookcase and down a secret passageway, there is a secret room. Fifteen feet by fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a windowless subterranean cube. North goes to the room to brutalise the man imprisoned there. Who is the man? And why must he never know any joy?
As the story progresses, North watches in disbelief as his financial grip on the world economy inexplicably begins to falter. How could this be happening? He takes every measure to restore order, but still the decline continues. The reason for this, and North's ultimate fate, are revealed over the course of the story.
In many ways, "How The Other Half Lives" is a simple story. What raises it above the ordinary is the elegance and sophistication with which the story is told. The financial world is convincingly portrayed. There is a rather strange subplot in which the imprisoned man is befriended by a rat, but Lovegrove makes it work. Elements of horror and science fiction are mixed in with audacious confidence. The result is a very engaging tale, and pleasingly it seems to be exactly the right length.
I found the ending quite thought-provoking. I could easily imagine other possible conclusions to the tale, and some readers may consider the ultimate fate of the two men to be something of a surprise. Which is no bad thing.
In any good anthology, the stories collected should sit well together. This is certainly the case here. In each story, the lead character meets a distorted alter ego. This in a book containing two stories which could be considered, albeit very abstractly, as alternate versions of each other. Binary is a very apt title and whoever suggested it must have been paying attention.
So I can recommend each of these novellas without any reservation. You can take your pick of the available formats but personally I quite like the Binary book. It slips in the coat pocket easily and is a bargain at £4.99. Two further volumes are also available. Binary 2 collects "The Vaccinator" by Michael Marshall Smith and "Andy Warhol's Dracula" by Kim Newman. And Binary 3, which I have also read and can also strongly recommend, collects "Tendeléo's Story" by Ian MacDonald and "Watching Trees Grow" by Peter F. Hamilton.
I do think these novellas warrant the attention they are receiving - purely because the quality of the writing is so high. Whether this will have any impact on the wider publishing industry remains to be seen. I hope so. For taking a giant leap of faith, PS Publishing and Gollancz deserve huge praise. I hope they are justly rewarded for taking a chance with work that is unconventional in format, but of the highest quality.
And now, after such rampant enthusiasm, I suppose I must retire to the cellar and give my doppelganger a thorough beating.
Review by Chris Butler
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© Chris Butler 13 July 2002