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Black Juice

by Margo Lanagan

(Orion, £8.99, 227 pages, hardback, first published 2004, this edition published 16 February 2006. Gollancz, £7.99, 227 pages, paperback, first published 2007, 8 February 2007.)

Review by Gary Couzens

cover scanIn 2004, Margo Lanagan was known primarily as a writer of children's and young-adult fiction in her native Australia. Black Juice, a short-story collection, was another book for the same market. But, as is the way of these things, it attracted attention and word spread. In 2005, it won the World Fantasy Award, proving - as if I didn't know already - that I shouldn't make predictions in print, even online print. (On this very site, I said that Lucius Shepard's Trujillo was a surefire winner.)

Anyone who still thinks that YA fiction is a light, unchallenging read, will be quickly disabused when they pick up this book. In the opening story, "Singing My Sister Down" (a World Fantasy Award winner and Hugo and Nebula nominee, though it's neither SF nor fantasy -- it is arguably horror) Ikky has killed her husband. Her punishment is to be sunk in a tar pit, and the story is that farewell-ceremony-cum-execution, narrated by Ikky's brother. Also in this book we have two men assassinating clowns at a convention in revenge for childhood abuse. In "The Point of Roses", a story added to the British edition, a boy's psychic powers bring about a reconciliation of an adult couple. These are frequently dark stories, not necessarily comforting, with a distinctive Australian flavour.

Short fiction covers a wide field, from short-shorts (or vignettes, or flash fiction) at one extreme to novellas at the other, and most writers have a story length which generally suits them best. To take examples that I have reviewed here, Lucius Shepard specializes in novellas and longer novelettes, rarely going below 10,000 words; likewise Elizabeth Hand. Joe Hill's stories frequently come in around the 7-10,000 word mark. The first thing to notice about Lanagan's stories is that they are short stories. "Singing My Sister Down" comes in at 3000 words, and all but one of the eleven in this book are under 5000. Yet all of these stories seem to contain much more than their short length would suggest: Lanagan's style is very compressed. Exposition in the normal sense is all but absent: we are plunged into the middle of a situation, of a world, of a viewpoint (not always a human one -- "Sweet Pippit" involves a herd of elephants) and it is up to us to piece it all together from what we pick up as the smallest detail or inference. These stories gain on second readings, where our greater familiarity with the events of the stories enables us to appreciate the richness of Lanagan's striking use of language. Not always an easy read, nor comfortable, but certainly a rewarding one, Black Juice is one of the major collections of the last few years. It's also good to see a major publisher issuing a book of short stories, a rare thing these days.

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