I am a huge fan of Myers’ work having read many of not all of his published works and I was delighted to hear that he was releasing a short story collection with Bloomsbury Books and when I could I requested that book.
Ben Myers is one of my favourite British writers, his work on place, character and the lives of the underdogs which he brings painstakingly to life is unmatchable in my opinion with the work of his peers.
Male Tears explores what it means to be a man – we get glimpses of men in various walks of life, from the farmer, the fairground worker, the wandering pilgrims, the gamekeepers, the bare-knuckle boxers and the ex-cons with secret passions. It’s an eclectic mix of male centric voices and one would also say voices that we don’t hear often enough in literature – the working class and the forgotten, those people that just keep on keeping on – and that’s what I loved about it, because Myers shines that light into the scrub and finds voices that yearn to be heard.
Having said that I did think that the book would have dealt more with toxic masculinity, the perils of challenging stereotypes and what it’s like to be a man in this world, I believe also that those issues were almost how this book had been publicised (but I may be wrong). Just imagine having Ben Myers tackle those themes with his undoubted brilliance – now that would have been something very special indeed.
But having said that we do have the challenging of expectations and what the role of men are with the story Ten Men and Act of Erasure plus we also see some of the crueler sides to adolescence and what that does to inform our worldview as we grow up in Suburban Animals.
I also enjoyed Ben Myers use of flash fiction in places to give us these heartfelt snapshots of lives, they work very well to help the reader have a breather before diving into another longer story and it’s a technique I’ve seen a lot of recently in the indie publishing scene – so it’s great to see the big publishers allowing this space for the art form of flash.
So on with the review,
A Thousand Acres of English Soil – a wonderfully framed tale of an old farmer and a young boy, one concerned with farming and the progress in the trade since his younger years, the isolation that surrounds him as he tends his crops with his tractor / harvester. The young boy is bewitched by something he finds in the tip, a rust old hunters trap which he salvages and sets to trap the rats – but he ends up catching something a lot bigger than he expects. Both stories come full circle with the brilliance that I’ve grown to expect from Myers.
The Folk Song Singer – A touching story about a folk song singer being interviewed by a young writer, told again in a split narrative, we get the story from both sides of the table. One side is the writer trying to dig deeper, to uncover the mystery behind this washed up song writer, the other side is the singer detailing her own thoughts and assumptions about this young man who is interviewing her about her past but has already made assumptions about her life and past – great insight into the role of women in this field and how men have treated her and continue to treat her over the many years that she’s been active in the field of song writing / singing.
Museum of Extinct Animals – this is a hard hitting story for those that believe that man is the worst beast on this planet, with its insatiable hunger to trap and kill and claim. It shows climate change, hunting patterns, urban growth and the destruction of the rainforest – it’s a stark reminder of what we’ve done to this planet and also serves as a warning of the encroaching possibility of a Museum of Extinct Animals becoming a possibility if we just stand by and let it happen.
An English Ending – a stunning story of a lifetime of neglect and abuse at the hands of a husband, this is delicately portrayed by Myers, restrained and deftly put across. We have snippets like pieces of a puzzle fall into place as our protagonist takes in the reservoir – breadcrumbs of a sort that when collected help us form a fully realised picture of abuse at the hands of her husband and what brought her to this body of water today.
A River – A flash fiction piece that details the returning to a memory, one that has been present in a life but no longer exists in the world he inhabits.
The Longest, Brightest Day – Man and woman travel to a sacred place, to the stone circle. They move along with their dogs and the swine they have with them for trade, their hearts are open to the possibilities that await them as they give offerings to the gods to permit them the desires of their hearts. This story was really interesting, it was of a forgotten time or a time yet to come. Myers writes nature so vividly that it is hard not to be moved by his words and observations of the world around us that he painstakingly unravels with prose that drowns you in its beauty.
Suburban Animals – A coming of age tale about a group of friends that are harassed by a group of bullies who take great delight in tormenting Duncan their down syndrome friend. The way in which Myers paints these bullies is astute and anyone who’s ever encountered a bully would be able to perfectly visualise their menace – those suburban rabid animals!
The Whip Hand – a tragic accident kills Mr. Moody head of one of the most famous showground families in England and so his son decides to set up a monument in his honour, but that monument will sit on an outcropping high above the forest floor – he hires men and sets about the arduous task of organising these me in lugging granite up this hill to create a lasting memory for his father.
The Last Apple Picker – another flash fiction piece that follows the life of an apple picker, his yearly visit to the orchard where he works the land and harvests his crop, his dutiful care and cultivation of these precious trees. He returns each year that much older to carry out his work.
Saxophone Solos – a divorce and a once bright star implodes, we see the fall from grace and the wreckage left behind.
Vienna (The Hunters in the Snow) – A writer heads off to Vienna to see the famous painting ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ he’s after ideas, he’s on the search for his muse and maybe he’ll write a story about it someday. Myers splices this story together with the now and the then, as pieces of the story are almost from the eyes of the hunters within the picture our protagonist is searching. An interesting premise and I enjoyed this story of discovery.
Old Ginger – there is a different tone to this story, more comedic and light, but there is darkness here too. Old Ginger is a character portrait and if you know Myers’ work then you know one thing to be true, that man can write characters! I loved this story about an old trapper – his story is so interesting and it made me want to know more about him and what had lead to him being who he has become, and Myers gives us that but he’s so brilliantly rendered that I wanted to spend more time with this crazy old man – I wanted a whole book based on his life!
An Act of Erasure – another flash fiction piece that details an old man’s final days, his inner torment and the way to find erasure.
The Bloody Bell – a family set off to deliver a bell that they’ve made, a piece of historical fiction with an almost horror twist to the tale. Here we see Myers excel again in his deftly crafter nature writing, his fusion of this with fabulously detailed characters make this a story to remember.
Ten Men – a young boy works the land with his father and come summer they are in need of someone to do the grunt work. Ray-Ray answers their call, a athletic but sinewy man, a man who could do the work of ten men, but he comes with a past and had recently left prison. This is a story about one young boys discovery that men come in all shapes and sizes and inclinations – the story was wonderfully written with Myers prose magic and turn of phrase mouth-watering at times.
The Astronaut – a flash fiction piece about an astronaut who struggles to reacclimatise after visiting the moon.
Bomber – this is by far the most bizarre and weird tale of this sprawling collection and one that I very much enjoyed. A man after having a very public argument with his partner decides to head home and paint himself black. Bonkers storytelling but the voice of the narrator is utterly engaging.
Snorri & Frosti – a delightful story to end the collection, I’d say it was more novella length given the other stories in the collection – it is the biggest of the bunch. But this is more a duologue / two-hander play – it screams to be turned into a radio play. It follows the life of two ageing brothers who are woodcutters and the story just revolves around their lives which Myers has expertly given voice, the dialogue is witty and snappy and it’s funny whilst also being heartrending – Myers has saved some of his best work until last.
All in all this is in my opinion a wonderfully crafted collection, there were of course some stories that I preferred over others, there were two that I didn’t really gel with but the majority of these stories blew me away – some of my favourites are; Snorri & Frosti, Ten Men, An English Ending and A Thousand Acres of English Soil.
You are guaranteed with Myers work to have prose magic on every page, brilliantly rendered characters and descriptions of nature that are so vivid you feel at one with the world Myers creates – and all of that can be found in Male Tears.
But there is so much to marvel at in all of the stories and I for one would say that this is such a varied collection that it’ll give something for all readers.
Benjamin Myers is a national treasure and his work on characters and nature is truly masterful.
Male Tears is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
Benjamin Myers was born in Durham in 1976. His novel The Gallows Pole received a Roger Deakin Award and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Beastings won the Portico Prize for Literature and Pig Iron won the Gordon Burn Prize, while Richard was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. He has also published poetry, crime novels and short fiction, while his journalism has appeared in publications including, among others, the Guardian, New Statesman, Caught by the River and New Scientist.
He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire.
benmyers.com / @BenMyers1
Review by Ross Jeffery
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