From the street fighter set up for a fall to a balloonist who encounters a hole in the sky, these short stories offer the nutrition of a novel at a tenth of the length
Daniel Mason’s novels come slowly – his latest, The Winter Soldier, took 14 years to complete. This is his first collection of short fiction, and it is full of stories that provide the nutrition of a novel at a tenth of the length. In all the tales the setting is historical, so the perils have safely passed. Which is not to say that it is a relaxing read: Mason, a psychiatrist, is particularly strong at depicting the state of mind a character works himself into when struggling with fear, uncertainty or even impostor syndrome.
In “Death of the Pugilist, or the Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw”, the “thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped” street fighter Burke faces a legendary rival, whose height and girth mean “his head [is] set back like some faraway peak”. But Burke’s fear, then anger, is really focused on his agent, who has set him up to lose the fight that restive spectators have placed bets on. Elsewhere Alfred Russel Wallace, “bug collector, species man” and the overlooked co-creator of the theory of evolution, worries about why Charles Darwin hasn’t replied to his latest letter.