Fly Away Home by Marina Warner

Why, why, WHY have I never read Marina Warner’s fiction before now??? She was a regular presence in the 1980s, appearing on TV in fascinating programmes and writing wonderful books exploring feminine and feminist history and myth-making. Warner’s a highly regarded Professor, a DBE, and yet until now I’d somehow managed to miss the fact that she writes fiction as well. However, luckily Salt Publishing have just brought out a new collection of her short stories, “Fly Away Home, and were kind enough to provide a copy for review. Salt are based in East Anglia, which is my neck of the woods, and it’s wonderful to see that they’re bringing out new short story collections – for reasons I’ll expand on later.

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“Fly Away Home” contains 20 short works, ranging from just a few pages to long pieces. And the range and variety of the stories is quite breathtaking; Warner seems capable of turning her pen to any kind of story and narrator, from an ageing drag queen to a 13th century anchorite. Many of the stories comfortably straddle the divide between fantasy and reality, bring the unusual into the everyday in a way that’s totally convincing, and every one packs a punch of some kind. So “Melusine: A Mermaid Tale” plays with our expectations of a fairy tale; “Brigit’s Cell” contrasts two voices that are centuries apart; “Sing for Me” delves into the delicate area of the differences between our private and public actions; “Forget my Fate” touches on a number of subjects, including the immigrant experience and the ability of music to transcend; and “After the Fox” looks at tricky human relationships.

And that’s just a few of them…. Each story is such a gem that I had to pause in between reading them and take a break, just to let the last one assimilate – a different approach to my normal gulping down of books, and a valuable one as I was able to appreciate just how good Warner’s tale-telling is. What’s so impressive is how she’s able to effortlessly take on the persona of whoever (or whatever!) she wants to use to tell the story, and how she does it faultlessly.

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I mentioned earlier how pleased I was that Salt were publishing collections of contemporary short stories; and one of the interesting things about this book was looking at the list in the back of where the stories first appeared, which ranged from websites, magazines and on the BBC. Dovegreyreader had a really interesting post here recently about short stories and how difficult it must be to get them published and taken seriously nowadays. Certainly, Warner seems to have managed to find outlets for hers, but thank goodness there are publishers prepared to put out collections of work like this – the thought of these stories not finding a wide audience is unthinkable.

“Fly Away Home” is most definitely one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long time, in fact some of the best contemporary writing (and I’m notoriously fickle about new books…) Thanks go to Salt Publishing for providing the review copy – this may be the first fiction I’ve read by Warner, but I’m certain it won’t be the last! 🙂