BOOK REVIEW: The Giftmaker by Mark Mayes

In terms of adaptation, the fairy tale has a strong claim to champion, considering the sheer number of reinventions, modernisations and bastardisations of the original source material. Brothers Grimm, Andersen, Perrault, Shahrazad, Apollodorus – parents of so many grandchildren that they wouldn’t recognise half of them. In an arena of countless papier-mache reworkings, it is extremely difficult to produce one that is actually good. Something to understand before embarking on the Victor Frankenstein-style attack on a fairy tale: they are not there to cover the patches of an author’s own weaknesses. They are not, as so many writers, directors and artists seem to believe, plasters for breaches in the imagination, bandages to obscure a leaking plot.

In Mark Mayes’ The Gift Maker, we are lumped into his half-fabricated world and introduced to Thomas Ruder. Ruder is an average university student who rents a dilapidated room from Mrs. Senf, the landlady. There is a package for Thomas, we hear, the gift-giver an unknown man with big, hairy hands. What is the gift? It is, we are told through the confusing prose, a box: ‘There were no words on the outside of the box, no name or address. But on the bottom side, the side opposite the elegantly-tied bow, was a series of neatly-written numbers in black ink. Two digits followed by a dot, followed by two more digits, then another dot, finally followed by four digits. For several minutes Thomas tried to puzzle it out.’ And so begins the construction of Mayes’ protagonist, an entirely unlikeable academic with equally half-made, unlikeable academic friends. These are Ulli and Jo ‘(short for Johann)’, who with Thomas, engage in contrived, awkward philosophical conversations. They call each other ‘comrade’, ‘oh bearded one’, and ‘boffin’, before speaking in collected platitudes. There is, to be fair, the shadowy presence of humour in these interactions, as though the characters are not entirely serious in their proclamations. However, even when the plot delves into its crucial moments, the same speeches are delivered by Jo in earnest. These, it turns out, are easier to laugh at.

While Thomas is our guide through the convoluted world he inhabits, it is the love interest that Mayes pushes before the reader. Lisolette, a student of literature at Schwalbenbach University, is the novel’s damsel in distress who Thomas is desperate to bed. From the moment she is introduced, Lisolette is treated as a teenage boy’s we dream, and at any given opportunity, Mayes strips her of her clothes. Handed to the reader in chapter two, she is subsequently put together. The ‘dark-haired beauty’, is gradually pieced together, and we find our first fairy-tale smuggled into the novel: ‘he spotted that familiar high-collared, cherry-red coat and the shiny black boots he had seen Lisolette wearing.’ She is wearing that same coat later when, on a train journey to the town of Grenze, she meets a wolf masquerading as a man. As with almost all translations of Little Red Riding Hood, sexuality is yanked to the forefront: Lisolette is a ‘full-lipped, cat-eyed young woman’, with an ‘exquisite aquiline nose’, and when she whispers it is in a ‘low, purring voice that sent a tingling to Thomas’s extremities.’ We then move on swiftly to our next display of fairy-tale incorporation. Invited back to Lisolette’s apartment, Thomas learns that she too, has been given a mysterious box, and where he was too frightened to open his, Lisolette/Pandora has no such apprehensions. What is in her box? ‘A tiny glass coffin, no longer than four inches. And inside it, swathed in a white wrap, lay a figure. Thomas saw once more the jet-black hair draping luxuriously over the slim yet toned shoulders. The face was at rest. Not dead, only sleeping.’ Lisolette/Red Riding Hood/Pandora presents Lisolette/Sleeping Beauty. The latter wears nothing but the white wrap, and begins to dance extravagantly in the nude. Surely Thomas can’t believe his luck! And what is it that he notices while she performs? Sleeping Beauty’s lack of genitals.

Perhaps the key issue with The Gift Maker, is too much of it is unnecessary, primarily in the writing itself. Mayes, you come to learn, is a great believer in the adjective. In a single sentence, he manages to wrangle in ‘nervous laugh’, ‘queerly-dressed’, ‘half-smiling man’ and ‘velvet voice’. Questions punctuate paragraphs in a way that only serves to confuse the narration, and though we might have met Thomas or Lisolette fifty times, Mayes insists on introducing them in succeeding chapters as ‘the young girl’ or ‘the student’. At the foundation of Mayes’ problems is a lack of confidence in his own writing. While the novel attests to his desire to reach out for fantastical plot developments, it is clogged by needless recaps of events, reminders of Lisolette’s faultlessness, and dialogue snagged somewhere between Dickens and Google Translate.

Along their travels, the three heroes meet men and women of all social classes, and all but the academics are disregarded or insulted. On more than one occasion, a poorer member of the novel’s cast is murdered without reason, without advancement to the plot nor to conjure any emotional response. In one description, they are clumped beneath a single sentence: ‘The men wore long, dark, shapeless coats, and hoods obscuring their faces.’ Upon discovering the body of one of these ‘shapeless coats’, Thomas declares them ‘a dead weight’, before he and Jo leave without an ounce of pity to spare, thus adding to the impossibility of actually warming to either teenager.

Glimpses of more hopeful writing are there to be found. Daumen, the literal gift-maker, describes some of his process as he creates carbon copies of Thomas and Lisolette: ‘Sometimes I stare at the blood droplets on my fingertips, how they turn to blue on contacting the air, some odd reversal. I could squeeze such a heart, make it pop like a berry. Instead, I find the cavity. Make the necessary connections.’ Of all the stories he decorates with, Mayes is most successful when he draws in Mary Shelley. The difference is that the tales he steals from are done with effect or purpose, whereas here, the borrowing from Shelley is neither impotent nor lazy.

The Gift Maker stands at some uncertain centre between Clive Barker and J. K. Rowling, swinging wildly from one to the other and never finding a concrete foothold with either. The attempts at horror appear without causing disgust or terror, while the trio of young students in a half-magic world are not worth following. What can be said about Mayes’s writing is that, you read with the sense that he is in need of a much stricter editor. 

Mark Mayes

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Mark trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He subsequently worked in theatre and television for several years, both in the UK and abroad. He has worked variously as a cleaner, care-worker and carer, salesman, barman, medical transcriptionist, warehouse worker, and administrator.

Mark has published numerous stories and poems in magazines and anthologies in the UK, Eire, and Italy, and in particular has had several stories published in (or accepted for) the celebrated Unthology series (Unthank Books). His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. He has been shortlisted for literary prizes, including the prestigious Bridport Prize.

In 2009, Mark graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in English (Creative Writing and Critical Practice) from Ruskin College, Oxford.

Currently living in South Wales, Mark is also a musician and songwriter, and some of his songs may be found here: https://soundcloud.com/pumpstreetsongs

Among his favourite writers are: Jean Rhys, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, and Christopher Priest.

The Gift Maker is his début novel and will publish spring 2017.

BOOK

The Giftmaker was published by published by Urbane Publications on 23rd February 2017

You can purchase a copy of The Giftmaker from Urbane Publications.

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Review by Connor Harrison

You can read Mark’s previously published short story; ‘The Cure’ here

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