BOOK REVIEW: The Beautiful Room by RB Russell
As in my previous review (of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, also from Nightjar Press), this eight-page story is a masterpiece of understated and compact tale-weaving. Superficially, it’s about a dream becoming a nightmare, but there are layers and subtexts here that add up to a dissertation on the complex interactions implicit in any relationship – and being able to negotiate those complexities fluently (or otherwise) can either make or break that relationship.
It all starts innocently enough. A couple, John and Maria, are out property-hunting, and have found a beautiful room suffused with light filtered through muslin curtains. Maria wants to take the room, situated in a house in the country; John prefers the flat in the city. Naturally, in as fraught a pursuit as looking for somewhere to live, nerves get frayed and an argument bubbles up. Soon, however, the pair are distracted by scufflings and scrabblings coming from within the walls. Maria wants to rescue the birds she feels are trapped within the walls; John just wants to get out and get back to the city. It is at this point that the tensions, and the noise, are ramped up in volume.
A simple premise, but nothing more than a mask disguising some complex emotions and relationship dynamics. The tensions were already there to start with, of course: tiny hints are dropped that this is a way of life for the couple, that unresolved and simmering conflicts lie just below the surface. Here, at this intersection of time, the room and the events act as both a focal point and as a pivotal moment: choices need to be made, either through accident or by design.
The moment the birds start flapping about inside the walls is the moment when the fuse has been lit. Maria desperately wants to rescue the birds she thinks are there (and which can be seen as being symbolic of the relationship itself) but John is reluctant; in other words, John just wants things left to work themselves out whilst Maria wants to actively tackle the problems. In fact, one gets the feeling that John’s instinct is to run away and ignore the underlying problems. However, the noise multiplies as soon as John does try to help and the static between the two increases (in the form of an increase in noise and activity from the birds), in effect blocking (or at least garbling) communication between the two. The noise of the flapping increases to such a level that neither can hear the other and a point of no return has been reached, signalling that neither is prepared to listen to the other. Additionally, even when the pair separately yell out the window for help when their only exit gets stuck, there’s no-one out there to respond. The issues have to be faced and resolved by them, and them alone.
Revealing any more would spoil this beautiful story for any potential reader, but suffice to say that the ending is somehow inevitable. Russell has a deft, airy touch and the tale starts lightly and brightly; this is a young couple, forging ahead career-wise and grabbing every opportunity presented. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when we learn that a subtle darkness exists between them, a darkness that doesn’t need much to overwhelm and drive the pair apart. John is an angry and somewhat selfish man, pointing out that he expects Maria to support him in his new job and all that the move to the new country entails, and to put aside her needs and wants in the process. There is also the hint that the city represents order and security to his mind. Conversely, Maria is much more in tune with the freedom and spaciousness that the rural life symbolises – once more we are reminded that divisions, apparently irreparable ones, eat away at the heart of the relationship. Those divisions are only emphasised by the pandemonium created by the birds, both when trapped within the walls and when John eventually releases them. And, like I said, that situation only has only one ending.
The best writing works on many levels simultaneously, as The Beautiful Room does. As brightly as the story starts, it doesn’t take long for the rot at the core of John and Maria’s relationship to make itself known, albeit unfolding subtly and very gradually. And even when the chaos starts we’re not entirely sure whether the tensions are just the result of the present situation. However, it isn’t long before the reader realises that here is something a lot deeper than just two lovers having a disagreement – it becomes obvious that there’s something fundamentally fractured (and fracturing) between them. And that perhaps the widening chasm that has steadily been growing in their relationship has got to the point of being too big to be bridged.
But the thing that strikes most of all is Russell’s writing. It isn’t direct, in the way some writers are, but is oblique, effectively masking (in the case of this particular story) the deeper undercurrents that bubble just underneath the illusorily calm surface, which are only revealed very gradually and piecemeal. With a few deft strokes of the pen, Russell opens up the festering wounds that exist between John and Maria but without ever losing that lightness. It’s that sharp contrast that helps to underscore the horror of the situation, both in the pandemonium instigated by the birds and the state of the relations between the couple. We ARE horrified, once we realise just what is going on, that they have let things get this far without attempting anything like a form of reconciliation. However, learning about John also, paradoxically, leaves us with hope that maybe Maria will find her own path, and be allowed to soar on her own terms.
What more can I say? Simply that, in my opinion, this is a stunning little story, simply and understatedly, as well as artfully, told. I find myself wishing that I’d heard about these little Nightjar Press chapbook gems a lot earlier – admittedly they haven’t been around for very long, so far only releasing four others (Michael Marshall-Smith’s What Happens When you Wake up in the Night (which won a BfS Award this last weekend), Tom Fletcher’s The Safe Children, Alison Moore’s When the Door Closed, it Was Dark and Joel Lane’s Black Country – watch out for reviews of the last two very soon) and all issued in the same format and in signed limited editions of just 200. More importantly, it bodes extremely well for the future of genre writing in the UK, as well as the health of the independent presses. At just £3.00 apiece, this represents a very high quality bargain – and I would venture to say that you should miss them (and future releases) at your peril. So what are you waiting for?
This review was originally published at the Beyond Fiction site.
Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones
Publisher: Nightjar Press
Publication date: 17th September 2010