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Review of The Red Gloves and other stories, by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly Press 2021

“…he stood up there like someone important, spouting as if he knew it all, but he didn’t, did he? He had no idea. Were all adults such frauds, was it all false, the way they pretended to know things, to be experienced, to have learned, have passed exams? Were they really all fakes like he, Jack, was?”
 

It may seem perverse to start by quoting the one story in this volume that has no supernatural element. But in a way, “Not Such a Bad Thing” is key, because Jack, who has plagiarised a story from an old book for his English homework, is experiencing a revelation about how little the adults whom he has seen as omniscient actually know. His teacher has not spotted it, the head of English has entered it for a competition, the judges too have awarded it first prize. Jack acquires a new perspective on himself and his world, and this is what happens in most of the stories here.

Several stories are deliberately ambiguous as to whether the supernatural elements are “real” or a manifestation of what is going on inside the young protagonist’s head, particularly when the stories concern relationships – and often these protagonists are coping with being part of split and remade families. On one level, the antagonistic “Red Gloves”, maliciously unhappy with their new situation, clearly mirror the two young girls whose holiday friendship does not survive visiting each other at home. The sprite “Nettle” could well be a manifestation of Nia’s strong desire not to move house. But things are not as reductive as that. Chloe may long to be other than she is, but there is always the possibility that the “changing room” at her gym is just that, a room where people are changed into something else.  The bird trapped in “The Mirror”, which Daniel entices into himself, could be emblematic of many things but it is also, terrifyingly, itself. And it would be very hard indeed to explain away either “The Hare” or “Ghost in the Rain” in purely realistic terms. If all-knowing adults can’t spot Jack’s plagiarism, what is “there are no such things as ghosts” worth?

A notable, and to me welcome, feature is the general lack of cosy “east, west, home’s best” endings. These children are not intimidated by encounters with the unknown: Chloe can’t wait to get back into the Changing Room, while Tom is clearly drawn to the “Silver Road” of dream, even knowing he may not be able to return from it.

The interesting introduction mentions how some of the ideas behind these stories developed into novels, but even without it, for a dedicated reader of hers, the parallels stand out – the menacing power of mirrors in several stories, prefiguring the Chronoptika series, the situation of grieving adults in a big house which foreshadows The Clockwork Crow, Chloe’s difficulty in deciding which is the “right” side, a dilemma faced by many a young protagonist in Fisher’s novels.

Although, as usual, any adult could read these with pleasure, it is important to bear the target audience in mind: the way Nia outwits Nettle is a very old folk-tale trope indeed and most adults would see it coming, but a child reader might well be meeting it for the first time. I doubt, however, that many readers of any age would manage to predict the killer ending of “Ghost in the Rain”. I didn’t. Nor, unlike some “surprise” endings, did it invalidate the story; on the contrary it gave it immediate new depth and sent me back to the start to read it afresh.

The book is a lovely artefact with a suitably menacing black and red dust-jacket, red bookmark and red-sprayed page edges. For those of you with young friends or relatives who like fantasy, ghost stories and good writing, it’ll make a fine Christmas present. I should buy it well in advance though, so that you can have a good read of it yourself first.

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