The False River by Nick Holdstock

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I first discovered the tremendous voice that is Nick Holdstock when I reviewed Unthology 11 (review here) and his story ‘Half‘ – which came kicking and screaming into my world. So, I was delighted to hear that he had a collection coming out from Unthank and was overjoyed when it arrived in the post for me to review.

The collection is an emotionally charged and exquisitely polished rollercoaster, with elements of dark humour laced through many of the tales, each told in a unique and enrapturing new voice with deftly and considered prose, which captivate the mind, body and soul.

The False River is a captivating collection with each story holding an intrinsic beauty, the words and imagery, the lives collated within seem to ebb and flow across the page, with a mesmeric beauty, until you are lost in the words and drowning within the page. There are so many stories within The False River that I found a connection with, but I will focus on five which left me struck by what an undeniable new talent Nick Holdstock is to the literary / short story world.

Half – Holdstock delivers a fierce piece of fiction to open his collection, which delves deep into your chest, lays hold of your heart and crushes it. This is the second time I’ve read this story (the first when reviewing Unthology 11) and on the second reading I found it quite remarkable – I was able to pick up on various small threads sewn throughout, which I missed on the first read. The story follows the protagonist Zoe who has a unhealthy infatuation with her half brother Sam – who we realise early on is a recreational heroin user. His recreational usage soon spirals out of control and turns into a full blown addiction (this all consuming grip on his life detailed deftly by Holdstock) – this mingled with Zoe’s feelings about her infatuation with her half brother boil and bubble as the story simmers gently under the masterful touch of Holdstock. As someone who has lost a family member to addiction (long term heroin use) I was delighted to see the subject dealt with delicately by Holdstock, his visuals were astute and handled with great care and attention. The way Zoe’s meetings with her brother bookend the story (before with his declaration of using heroin and then at the height of his addiction) is a great touch which in my opinion makes the story. It’s a bittersweet, deftly crafted tale which pulls at the heartstrings as we listen to the music that is being played out on the page by these believable characters yearning for change, belonging and the cravings of their hearts.

And Then – A delightfully meandering tale through the lives of several people working for a publishing house, from the managing director to the intern.  With each passing passage we see things from another character, another vantage point, something discussed in the preceding passage is then flipped on its head and shown from another characters point-of-view – revealing flaws, other lives, circumstance, personal hatred and fascinations. It’s a cauldron bubbling away, with different ingredients being added as we journey along. Holdstock’s ability to link each passage is sublime and a tool that works really well in the pacing of the story. It’s in essence normal lives being cast out into the light, dirty laundry being aired for everyone to see, a really smart and beguiling read and a testament to simple writing done well!

The Embrace – Is a devastating read, full of grief, loss and the aching despair of losing a child. It is a great feat of writing to move somebody into these feelings which play out on the page. Holdstock was able to put across the feelings of bereavement astutely and without being patronising. Being a father I have a fear and a somewhat limited grasp of what the aching pain of loss would feel like if one of my children were to die. Holdstock made me feel it even more so – there is something intrinsically beautiful in the way he expresses these feelings in The Embrace and taints the reader with the pain. Grief is all consuming and suffocating at times and these additional factors lead and build on the tension that our protagonist is facing, the choices playing out in her warped mind, swelling until the pages can’t contain it any longer, making the conclusion that much more hard hitting and poignant! Unrelentingly moving and disturbingly brilliant writing.

New Traffic Patterns May Emerge – A dark and deliciously juicy story in the offing here. I love stories that deal with the fallibility of man. This story centres around Chris who’s, how shall we put this, had a bad fucking year – deaths, assault, burglary and his girlfriend stabbed him then dumped him by text. He’s struggling to get his life back, but when he manages to pull himself out of the gutter, manages to get himself back to feeling a semblance of the person he was before, his life is thrown upside down by a text message from his ex-girlfriend wanting to meet up. What I feel works superbly well in this story is that it is in essence two stories in one, with each paragraph, flitting between two separate stories that are being told simultaneously. In the first story as discussed already it is the ongoing drama of Chris and Rachael, the other story running with it is the tale of Sally and Lucas a young boy and his girlfriend who are at a birthday party, with balloons, cake and baby rabbits. This tool is used masterfully by Holdstock and never becomes confusing, it is effortlessly unique and handled with a deft touch – although the story flits between the two it is easy to keep track of both and has a readability to it which makes the story evaporate in your hands. There is so much going on in this story and the voice of the piece is phenomenally crisp and clear and a sheer delight to unpack – it is a cracking story that really hits home…it also links with another story within the collection, but I feel that would be giving too much away if I were to divulge such a thing here!

The False River – The title story of the collection is again another delectable story which showcases Holdstock’s writing prowess and really cements him as a new powerhouse in short fiction. The False River follows the story of a bus driver, who has a habit of counting everything, signs, mileage, passengers, ages, attractiveness, traffic lights – it’s a wonderful tool that Holdstock uses, and which never gets boring, also ensuring that this piece has a completely different feel and voice to the others within the collection (there are so many different tools that Holdstock uses and so many unique tales, told in their own special way –  that you could be mistaken for believing they were written by multiple authors, such is the range and contrast of stories held within this arrestingly brilliant collection – and the undeniable talent Holdstock possesses as a writer). The False River has a lot going on underneath the deftly crafted prose, and I assume that is the reason why Holdstock chose it as his title story, it is sheer brilliance in writing – sharply witty, perfectly balanced  and told with a beguiling skill. It is observational writing at its very best with an attention to detail that is mesmerising and if that wasn’t enough it also has a believability to it which is enrapturing and cathartic.

There are many other tales within this collection which I loved – there is literally something for everyone within The False River – so do yourself a favour, pick it up, read it and get swept away by its brilliance!

With The False River we are truly witnessing the birth of a new and masterful storyteller.

The False River is published by Unthank Books and is available here.

Nick Holdstock

Nick Holdstock is the author of a novel, The Casualties, and three books of non-fiction: The Tree That BleedsChina’s Forgotten People and Chasing the Chinese Dream. He has written for the London Review of Booksthe Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and the Financial Times. In 2014 he won the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize. He lives in Edinburgh. @NickHoldstock

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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