Life is very weird right now. Since the advent of the corona-crisis, pretty much everything has changed: I no longer know what day of the week it is, I haven’t worn proper clothes for over a month and every single night I have ridiculously disturbing dreams. (Last night I broke into a school so I could steal all the orange crayons. Because that is completely normal, obviously). So when I was offered a copy of Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell in return for a review, the title appealed to me enormously. Maybe this text would provide a pathway back to normality; a much-needed reminder of how life was before the pervasive fear of breaching anyone’s 2 metre exclusion zone. Turns out I could not have been more wrong (never judge a book by its title, folks) but what this did deliver was a unique and truly original style of writing that captivated me completely from page one.
From the very beginning it is clear that these are not your average short stories. Each vignette provides a fairly normal opening context – a traditional English tea shop or a seaside pier, for example – then turns this on its head and descends into the surreal. The imagery alone is quite beautiful, but there is so much more below the surface. These are fairytales for our modern times and skilfully address some of the big issues that tax our modern lives, like love, identity, sex and religious doubt. In deconstructing normality, normal becomes abnormal and the abnormal normal. (I promise that will make much more sense once you read it). The book in its entirety is actually quite short but it would be a tragedy to devour this too quickly – usually a fast reader, I found myself slowing right down to luxuriate in the strangely hypnotic linguistic world that Russell conjures.
Some of these tales will undoubtedly stay with me for some time. The Meeting was my unrefuted favourite, reminding us how love makes us question things in ways we have never considered before. Extraordinary Elsie was simultaneously both chilling and charming (something I didn’t even think narratively possible) with its emphasis on the inherent human need to believe in something. I will also struggle to forget Dunce, where one of the characters likes to have sex to the sound of ice cream van music. I had a childhood terror of the disembodied melodies that haunted our neighbourhood during summer and still find myself now fighting the urge to run and hide at the sound, so I found this plot point particularly unnerving.
This is a strange book for sure, but then Hansel and Gretel or even Goldilocks must have sounded exceptionally odd the first time they were told. Nothing is Strange requires the reader to suspend their expectations of normal and surrender to the flow. It is written beautifully, awakened parts of my imagination that have long been dormant and will be on my mind for some time to come. I definitely recommend this for anyone looking to push their literary boundaries.