Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – A Room on the Abyss

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

Fox is six, and though he understands that he is “life’s chosen one”, he doesn’t know why or what he is supposed to do.  His father has gone – vanished.  Not dead, not sick, just gone.  He lives at a boarding house where he goes to school.  He has red hair, which he dislikes because the other children tease him, and he can’t read.  His life isn’t miserable as such, but he doesn’t exactly enjoy it very much.  He believes that the day he learns to read is the day he can lose himself in books.

And that, all told, is that.  Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Room on the Abyss is a brief story outlining a young boy’s awakening from his socially and physically awkward “real life”, to the potent and heady wonders of the literary life.  It’s a nice story, a little saggy in the middle, but sweet, and Fox seems like a nice enough boy.  But compared with the other stories in the A Life on Paper collection, it doesn’t quite compare.

Fox’s boarding school contains N’Mambo, a child who may or may not be the King (or Crown Prince) of Tanganyika.  There is also the Turk, who is as strong as a Turk, and something of a bully.  There are Indians with scalped heads who bleed in the corner.  Are these characters real?  Well, the children are.  But perhaps their additional qualities are not.  Fox possesses an active imagination which, combined with his utter assurance that he has been chosen by life (but for what?), means that anyone he comes into contact with must, by definition of Fox’s life, be important and special.

He wonders, argues with himself: c’mon, he’s got nothing to fear, life would warn him if it was going to stop choosing him!  In any case, he’d have to make a lot of mistakes – worse, and bigger ones – for it to stop playing secret favourites.

Later, Fox learns from the Turk how to read a few short sentences, and his life is upended.  He realises that this is why he has been “chosen by life” – it is to read.  Or, rather, unspoken by Fox but implied by his behaviour and strength of imagination, he is supposed to be a writer.  It is clear to the reader (though not yet to him) that he will become a writer as an adult, and in fact his wild imaginings in the schoolyard are his immature attempts to create a coherent narrative to support the actions of his life and the lives around him.

…But today he knows how to read [a yellow book selected from a bookshelf].  He repeats the incredible words to himself: Today I know how to read! So the day does come when eyes are opened and secrets revealed, when order comes to chaos…Fox nods.  How many such dawnings does a life hold?  Can you die without having your fair share, without fathoming the marvellous truth?

And it’s nice, really, to read a story such as this.  Fox is, for all his creativity, a nice boy, and sweet.   Châteaureynaud writes the story with the kind of words that Fox would understand, and his sentence structure remains simplistic throughout.  There is a kind of measured, rhythmic nature to the sentences, and all of the characters’ emotions are well-telegraphed in advance and clearly stepped through – exactly like a story for a child.  As a concept, A Room on the Abyss is successful, but the story itself is about 3 pages too long, and some of the sequences – such as an extended fight scene, or an argument with N’Mambo about him being a King – feel unnecessary and unfocused.  I liked the story, but I wasn’t as impressed or awed as I have felt with most of the other stories from A Life on Paper.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title A Room on the Abyss
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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