Author: Helen Marshall
Title: The Gold Leaf Executions
Publisher: Unsung Stories, March 2023; RRP: 35 GBP
Helen Marshall comes to be an Australian resident from her native Canada via Oxford, academia laying the trail that has most recently landed her at the University of Queensland where she is a senior lecturer in creative writing. That strong research background, with a particular interest in the medieval, has found its way into her work, as inspiration as well as moments of verisimilitude. And, of course, the doctor can write. Oh, yes.
The Gold Leaf Executions is her third short story collection, adding to two poetry chapbooks and her novel, The Migration (2019). Marshall is an accomplished practitioner of speculative fiction – her bibliography teems with science fiction and fantasy publishers, and her second collection, 2014’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, won a World Fantasy Award (adding to her Best Newcomer award of 2013) and the Shirley Jackson Award – and her prose has the elegance and voice to entice the big-L literary fan who enjoys the spice of fabulism or magical realism.
Regardless of one’s genre preferences, Marshall’s ability to paint a picture is unarguable:
‘Lydia’s feet had all the grace of birds with broken wings’, she writes in ‘All Things Fall and Are Built Again’.
Or how about this, in ‘Caldera’, where a young woman is finding herself in a folklore-infused Reykjavik:
‘She spent her days by the old harbour watching terns circle and dive, bodies perfectly engineered for flight. She admired their effortless movements, their murderous instincts. The sky was grey. The sea was grey. The world reflected itself, and the birds stitched the two gleaming surfaces together, rising, falling, rising, falling.’
The Gold Leaf Executions compiles a selection of works published between 2014 and 2019, predominantly in spec fic genre publications and anthologies, with ‘Katalog’ unique to the collection. It is an exemplar of the collection’s trend to overtly relate a story, or a part of a story, in this case through the words of the son of an artist testifying to a committee in a harsh, embattled Communist Bulgaria about his father’s – and mother’s – powers.
Death, as the publisher’s blurb illuminates and the title suggests, is a strong theme in the collection, presented in settings from the everyday to the fractured real to the fantastical. These are also stories of transition or transformation, not just of loss but self-discovery, the fabulous elements serving as the crack in the world that allows Marshall to shine her light on the characters, and not always in the way we might expect.
In ‘The Embalmer’, for example, she purposefully, explicitly, breaks into the narrative to tell us this story is not going where we think it might, especially those used to wading in the dark side of fiction. No, this is how it plays out in the real world of this story, of course it does. While Stephen King is a clear template for her writer Barron St John in ‘Survival Strategies’, ‘The Embalmer’ is not a King story. It’s clearly a Marshall, overtly subverting genre expectation; something she does notably again when she breaks the fictive wall in ‘Survival Strategies’ by namechecking this collection.
This subversion, though, and the clear omniscient narration mentioned above that frames many of the stories, may mean that, for all the beauty and sheer clever writing presented here, mileage will likely vary. The omniscience, perhaps combined with a feeling that some of the protagonists are lacking agency (not necessarily without reason), breeds a certain remove between story and reader. Consequently, narrative drive can be lacking. The voice is strong – the difference in narration between the Cthulhu nods of ‘Caro in Carno’ and ‘Exposure’ to the second person of ‘One-quarter Dreaming, Three-quarters Want’ and the contemporary third-person of US twins dealing with death in ‘Heaven’s Night-blooming Gardens’ is clear – but that distance between reader and protagonist may limit investment.
Regardless, there is plenty to reward here, and it is gratifying to have these stories mustered conveniently in the one volume. I look forward to seeing if her sojourn down under will influence her new works, for surely we can claim this talent as ‘ours’, just as we have embraced her equally masterful and fellow expat Lisa L Hannett.
The sad part for readers outside the UK will be the postage, as The Gold Leaf Executions is available at the moment solely as a limited edition hardback through the publisher’s website (http://www.unsungstories.co.uk/the-gold-leaf-executions-by-helen-marshall). Watch that space.
Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy supplied by the publisher