Reviewed in Germany 🇩🇪 on 9 June 2022
Before I take “Beneath a pale sky” apart into its constituent pieces in an attempt to explain my overall impression of Mr. Fracassi's collection, it would be remiss not to mention the overall impression one gets from reading a collection such as this – I think it would be fair to say that Philip hit it out of the ballpark with this. In terms of immersion into his collected worlds, the poetry of the language on display, breadth, and scope of themes – it’s all golden. You get the feeling that the author knows exactly what he is doing, and where he is going, and each story has its own emotional impact on the reader. It is, quite literally, breathtaking. Seen as a whole.
It would a disservice to highlight any of those elements I mentioned above because they all tie together so well that you know that you don’t want to break the magic of it all. So, the only option left is a closer look at the individual stories. Favorites have to be Harvest, The Wheel, and Fragile dreams. An interesting collection in that they all describe catastrophes – with "Harvest" we have a tornado, "The Wheel" documents a man-made disaster at a fairground on a pier (from which the cover gets its inspiration), and lastly in Fragile Dreams we experience an earthquake. Those three stories have massive emotional investment from the reader. In the first, we are so heavily invested in the protagonist Eli and his supernatural control of the elements, that his blinding love for his best friend becomes our world. The wheel introduces a love story between two young adults, just starting out on their life journey together, the man plans to surprise his beau with a proposal on the top of the Ferris wheel, spot lit against the disaster about to happen from a third party – the whole short runs on foreshadowing events, the bitter taste of what must happen with us from the beginning. And Fragile Dreams documents a man trapped in the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake. It has the feel of 9/11, both the “World trade center” film and the event. The protagonist's memories of friends, love interests, and parents (and substitute parent) bring out the reader's empathy and sorrow. All three of those shorts are long enough to feel like novellas in their own rights – you really feel like you got your money’s worth from them alone.
That’s not to dismiss the other shorts in the collection, with subjects are broad as Alien life, Magical realism and something akin to a unicorn Pan type creature, Mental illness, Death as a best friend. Fracassi brings his craft to all of the shorts, sometimes more so than others (Symphony was overly poetic – one gets the feeling Fracassi concentrated on the lyricism of the text and descriptions to the exclusion of everything else save the plot). It’s spellbinding, to be sure.
I wanted to look at Symphony in particular because it was distinctive through my unease. I apologize for the spoilers here, but to do credit to my discomfort, I have to break it down. If you want to avoid spoilers, skip all the following in italics:
A girl is woken by a symphony that leads her outside into a forest, where she has the compulsion to dig in a specific spot, where she discovers an amulet shaped like a unicorn. She lives in a broken household – her mother has recently died, and her father has broken down, become an alcoholic, and has initiated the beginnings of sexual abuse with his daughter (not penetrative yet, though we are left in no doubt that is his goal). To cut to the chase, the daughter defends herself whilst her amulet protector (a Pan-type creature) is merged with the father, she kills (as far as I can tell) the father but sustains mortal damage herself. She staggers back to the glade where she found the pendant, destroys the thing, and then dreams she hears her mother's voice calling her, and she is reunited with her mother, and father, and everyone is dead but happy in what I assume is a private heaven.
Now it’s because the abuse is the defining trigger in the story, that I have such a problem with the end. She is forced to defend herself against her father, whose rage mortally wounds her. He is primarily there to have sex – his lust is the driving force behind his actions, and she is terrified and repulsed by that need. She effectively kills him, but then he is a part of the heaven that we see at the end? So, I take it that she has forgiven the monster he became and is content with the previous memory of what he was before his wife died when he was actually a loving father? But trauma and abuse don’t forgive and forget that easily? It felt as if a happy ending was attempted, but yeah – I think it was a little misguided in that she dies through the trauma her father inflicts, after mental and physical trauma, yet she still clings to the memory of him as a good man? Regardless of how he was before the death of his wife, his memory is tainted by his actions since that event.
Yeah – as I said, probably only me here that has a problem with this, and I am sure that Philip meant a peaceful ending for his abused character, but for me, it’s a monster in heaven.
The collection is stunning, no doubt about it, the attention to detail, character, and prose leaves you in no doubt why the world is going crazy for Philip’s writing. It’s solid, through and through, certainly one of the best collections and showcases of a writer’s abilities that I have read in a long time. It all seems so effortless, you know that this is just the tip of the iceberg of Fracassi’s talent.
I still can’t separate my favorite from Harvest and The wheel. Both are heartbreaking.
5 out of 5 ⭐ ‘s, and I can’t wait for Boys in the Valley in summer ’23.
My thanks to both Philip Fracassi and Sadie Hartmann for an ARC in return for an honest review