Book Review: Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall

15821238Title: Hair Side, Flesh Side

Author: Helen Marshall

Genre: Dark Fiction, Anthology, Short Story Collection

Age Group: Adult (18+)

Rating: 3 stars

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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.

Hair Side, Flesh Side is a lyrical short story collection ranging from slightly humorous stories to downright horrifying tales. What they have in common is that all of them are strange, and are somewhat related to the human body. It’s a loose thread though, considering I wouldn’t even place some of these stories under the same genre. It’s dark fiction, yes, but I would’ve preferred if I could classify all of them under ‘horror’ or ‘bizar’, not a mix-match of things. I was continuously looking for horror. Now, of course, that could just be me, but I prefer my collections more straightforward. That’s not to say the stories have to be, but the theme of the collection must be.

Don’t get me wrong. The stories Helen Marshall provides the reader with are, each in their own right, interesting. There’s “Blessed”, about a seven-year-old girl who receives a saint’s body for her birthday. In the world of “Blessed”, this is common place, and children argue with each other over who received the most interesting body or body part of a Saint. This is an intriguing, but undoubtably strange and eerie concept. I found it horrific, yet not scary. “The Art of Dying” leaned more toward horror. Then there was my favorite, “Dead White Men”, which was a ghost story. “Sandition” was another interesting story, about an editor who finds a lost manuscript by Jane Austen inked on the inside of her skin. That one wasn’t horrifying at all, just well, ew, and the main focus was on the power struggle between the editor and the author.

I liked most of the stories in this collection. “The Mouth, Open” didn’t do it for me though. It completely ruined my appetite (which was probably the author’s intention) but also my will to read on, which wasn’t that good. The other stories ranged from decent to near brilliant. Another thing that annoyed me was the varying quality of different stories in this collection, like I said, some were bordering on brilliant whereas others were mediocre at best. I couldn’t see a common theme or a common quality, and that bothered me.

The author’s writing style however, is simply sublime. It reminded me of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. The plot of most of the stories in the collection strikes me as imaginative and original as well. Like I said, my favorite was “Dead White Men”, which was about a woman who channeled the spirits of great poets and authors into the bodies of her lovers. While I did think this was morbid and macabre, it also left me a little frightened, peering around my shoulder and expecting to see Lovecraft or Poe back alive.

No common theme was my major concern here, like I said. Looked on a one by one basis, the stories are quite strong and decent. But looked at it together…I just don’t see it. Maybe someone who does can come enlighten me. I enjoyed reading this book, but for me, it was nothing spectacular. As a short story on its own though, “Dead White Men” would have probably gotten a higher rating from me.

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