Book Review – “Speaking with the Angel”

SWTA cover
Speaking with the Angel is a collection of twelve short stories, all penned by various British artists or writers, that capture slices of modern British life, from the everyday to the extraordinary. While not a themed anthology, this literary gathering delivers a wide range of stories and characters that aren’t afraid to explore the slightly dark and certainly absurd. (Proceeds of this novel did/do go to benefit TreeHouse, a school for autistic children in which Hornby’s own son is/was enrolled.)

My Take: Speaking With the Angel is not my usual cup of reading tea as I’m a speculative fiction gal. But that doesn’t mean I automatically pass over anything that doesn’t involve aliens, magic, or paranormal beings. I can enjoy a good bit of literary fiction provided it holds my interest, and that’s exactly what this short story anthology does for the most part.

Concerning the stories themselves, this anthology contains the following works (in order of appearance):
– “PMQ” by Robert Harris – Recounts one wild night a British Prime Minister has devoid of his usual security and discretion.

– “The Wonder Spot” by Melissa Bank – General chick lit with an introspective twist.

– “Last Requests” by Giles Smith – Story of a cook who prepares the last meals of death row inmates.

– “Peter Shelley” by Patrick Marber – Tale about a pair of teenage lovers who have their first sexual experience.

– “The Department of Nothing” by Colin Firth – Introspective piece about a young boy who comes to grips with his grandmother’s passing.

– “I’m the Only One” by Zadie Smith – Brief piece about one character’s tall friend  (and that’s essentially it).

– “NippleJesus” by Nick Hornby – Story about a former bouncer who is hired to protect a controversial work of art.

– “LuckyBitch” by Helen Fielding – Story about an older woman whose pride causes her to have a fall (literally).

– “The Slave” by Roddy Doyle – Tale about a man’s finding of a dead rat in his kitchen, which acts as a catalyst for his mid-life crisis.

– “Catholic Guilt” by Irvine Welsh – Piece about a young man who is doomed to be a homosexual as punishment in the afterlife.

– “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” by Dave Eggers – Tale from a dog’s point of view.

– “Walking into the Wind” by John O’Farrell – Story about a mime and his friends who try to contend with reality.

Honestly, I was drawn to this book solely because of actor Colin Firth’s inclusion. While I’m certainly not sorry that I read it, my general consensus is that this was a good collection of modern British fiction – not great, not poor, just middle-of-the-road.

In a word (or make that seven words)…
That’s not necessarily bad but this collection did possess some weak moments though it contained a few shining stars. Hence, my favorite stories were “The Department of Nothing,” “PMQ,” “Last Requests,” and “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned.”

Colin Firth’s story is my favorite because I emotionally connected with it the most and I like him as an actor.
spongebob in love cute
(Yes, I’m biased and proud of it.)

Is it sentimental? I suppose, but it isn’t mushy or cloying to the point of being dismissive towards its subject matter. The amount of emotional realism made me wonder if this was something that had happened to Firth personally that he decided to fictionalize. It certainly reads that way, but even if it’s not, I thought it was a great look into the power of imagination and how the trials and tribulations of life can sap that away if we let it. In terms of an edifying message, Firth’s offering was more my kind of tea (no British pun intended) and the style and delivery were enjoyable.

Likewise, I was surprised by it in a very good way. Some stories actors who have tried writing simply reek of cliches (Elixir by Hilary Duff) or are genuinely readable (A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson). Firth’s story falls in the highly readable category and I was happy it wasn’t a train wreck as I initially feared it might have been. Who would have thought that Colin Firth could write? It’s a bit like seeing him in all of these rom-coms then witnessing this transformation in Kingsman:
Kingsman Let off Steam
Okay, not quite to that extreme, and I sense Firth won’t be penning a novel anytime soon (not to say he couldn’t – I for sure would buy it!). But still, “The Department of Nothing” was a delightfully somber read.

Secondly, I thought “PMQ” was hilarious! One reviewer on Goodreads likened this story to a “Monty Python” skit and I concur. It reads in a serious voice while it chronicles all of these wild and crazy happenings. I also loved the delivery as well as the structure as it acts to show you how the Prime Minister tries to maintain his composure for formality’s sake, then shows what really happened. It’s a clever, behind-the-scenes type of story, so for that I enjoyed it.

“Last Requests” was my third favorite because it attempted to bring a sense of sardonic humor to a rather serious subject. Again, the British have perfected the art of dry wit, which shines here. Yet it’s sobering and dark enough that it avoids becoming a full-on comedic piece.

Fourthly, “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” is the only non-Human narrated story here. Instead, it’s from the point of view of a dog who, after running amok, plunges into a river and recounts his last moments. It’s a sad tale, especially for animal lovers like me, but I appreciated its narrative style and attempt to view the world through a dog’s eyes in a way that isn’t childish but still childlike.

I would list “The Slave” as a fifth favorite but it was a bit predictable as a serendipitous piece, so I found my attention wavering a bit. But it was mildly enjoyable (though a tad lengthy for my liking).

The stories that were just okay for me were “I’m the Only One” and “Walking Into the Wind.” To be frank, I didn’t really “get” these stories and they struck me as trying to be too hipster or insightful when they weren’t really about much of anything, especially “I’m the Only One.”

“The Wonder Spot” and “LuckyBitch” weren’t even contenders of interest with me as I don’t like chick lit in any of its forms, serious or humorous. I always feel like whenever I glimpse a work of chick lit, I’ve read it somewhere before. The same held true for me in “NippleJesus,” which most reviewers on Goodreads seemrf to praise. But it was below passable for me in terms of a story as I felt like I’ve read stories about low-brow art becoming high-brow art before, all with the same intent (i.e. to prove that low-brow art becomes high-brow simply because it’s low-brow – something like that).

My absolute least favorite stories were “Peter Shelley” and “Catholic Guilt,” both of which deal unabashedly about sexual subjects in less than genteel ways. While nothing in “Peter Shelley” shocked or disgusted me too much (though reading about teenagers having sex isn’t a topic I care to peruse), I didn’t like “Catholic Guilt” at all and felt it was just trying to make a particular social statement in a rather crass manner (and for the record, I’m neither Catholic nor gay.)

Structure-wise, Speaking With the Angel is not a themed work, meaning there are no common threads tying everything together. The only common denominator among these stories is that they are all, in one way or another, slices of modern British life. Some act as if they have a message to share and succeed at it (such as “The Department of Nothing”), while others read like fiction pieces that weren’t meant to have a point, which is okay I suppose, but I like my fiction to possess some sort of point – and not one lewdly delivered.

Language – Strong language, including R-level profanities, occur in many (though not all) of the stories.

Violence – None, other than two animal deaths (one involving a rat and another a dog that drowns slowly though the latter is delivered from the dog’s point of view in a dry, darkly humorous voice). Granted, while there are no overt acts of violence, there are themes, from the death of a loved one, to imprisonment, to sexual frustrations, to even definitions of art, that are discussed in very frank, surreal, or even absurd ways, which might not appeal to all readers.

Sexual Content -“Peter Shelley” and “Catholic Guilt” are the most explicit in terms of sexual content with frequent, descriptive references to sex, including homosexual sex (in “Catholic Guilt”), and related anatomy. As a rule, the stories I listed above as my favorites were the cleanest and the ones listed as my least favorite were the most explicit. Overall, even though this collection was composed to support a school, it certainly is not for children or teens, at least not if taken collectively. Isolated stories, such as Firth’s piece, would probably be appropriate, but I’d highly recommend an adult perusing this collection before allowing any younger reader to glimpse its stories.

The Run-Down:
Overall, Speaking With the Angel is a good (but not great) collection of modern British writing. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be keeping my copy were it not for Colin Firth’s story (can you tell I’m being biased…and I don’t care). While this anthology is meant to appeal to a variety of tastes, there were too many average offerings here for me to say I  enjoyed it. But if you’re a fan of any of the authors included or if you enjoy British writing or humor, then be sure to check it out (some of the book’s more vulgar offerings notwithstanding).


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