A Man Melting
by Craig Cliff
Random House New Zealand
Awards: Winner, 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book, South East Asian and Pacific region.
"My mother carries my father’s replacement wedding ring with her
wherever she moves. Whatever the house, I know I could find this ring
in the top drawer of her bedside cabinet in a pink clamshell earring
case. But this is just the copy. It never had time to taper on the
underside before it was plucked from my father’s finger."
Reviewed by Angela Readman
Craig Cliff won the
Commonwealth Book Award in 2010 for his debut A Man Melting.
The book earns it. The writing is fresh, bold and has a finesse that
has a rare effect on the modern reader. Accustomed to skimming
emails, squeezing a quick fiction into our coffee break, we read A
Man Melting and feel we are in safe enough hands to slow down.
There is enough in these stories, in terms of character, sense of
place and what is at stake to, fully engage with. We can afford to
forget where we are and take the time to take in every word.
The stories are
mixed, in terms of length and genre, but are linked by the theme of
evolution. Who and what are we becoming? These stories search to
The collection starts
with a short story called Seeds, from which bigger issues and
landscapes grow. Be it in New Zealand, England, Scotland, cities or
small towns, the protagonists of the stories are cracked out of
stasis and rut in the most unexpected, and entertaining, ways. In
Facing Galapagos a man receives emails from Charles Darwin. In
The Skeptics Kid, a family is defined and redefined by the
discovery of species thought extinct. In Fat Camp, a longer
story I couldn’t put down, a man works at a camp for obese children
and taps into something crucial about his life.
As a reviewer, I
wanted to be able to place a label on the collection as a whole, "realist", "magical realist," etc, but it didn’t seem
possible with this collection. Some of the stories are realist in
nature, others are not. A Man Melting melts the boundaries. As
a reader, I couldn’t have cared less that A Man Melting, as
a whole, refuses to limit itself to simple genre definition.
It was simply a joy to read, though often collections that mix genres
often make it harder for a reader to engage. Entering each story the
reader can be unsure what’s expected of them. (For me, the eye with
which I look at a story I know will be magical realist story is
different to how I’d sit to read a more Carveresque work.
Categories make it easier for a reader usually; we like to know what
we’re about to read. ) Yet, A Man Melting is successful in
managing to make its varied approaches work. It’s a feat achieved
by the writing.
The descriptions and
characters in the - technically - realist stories are unusual and so
skillfully drawn they transform the ordinary. The writing itself
feels as magical as the situation is in a magical realist story.
One of the most
powerful stories in the book, Copies, is a great example. The
story deals with the imperfect nature of memory and a narrator
defining himself in relation to his father: an artist who specializes
in photocopying great works of art until they take on a new form and
"He copied and
copied his parents' wedding photo until it looked like two people
facing away from each other. He copied and copied his fifth birthday
party until it looked as if a mushroom cloud was exploding at the
centre, and tombstones were gathered round the edges instead of party
utilizes heightened writing like this in his more realist stories.
Conversely, the more fantastic stories in the collection are wry and
firmly rooted in the real world. In the title story A Man Melting,
the melting man is grounded in his office, clicking his mouse. The
detail we can relate to works, as in the best magical realist
stories, to send the theme home. Anyone of us, it feels, can melt at
skillfully make the movement between genres in the book feel organic.
Just as the subject of the book is evolution, it is not just life but
the short story form itself that feels like it is evolving as
boundaries blur and overlap. What we think is a magical realist story
may not turn out to be, and vice versa. In Cliff’s world anything
is possible at any time. The reader enters a story never sure what
type of story it will be, replicating the uncertainty of the
characters constantly thrown into flux. The book is clever like this
in many ways, but the ease of the writing never tires the reader by
making him or her feel the author is trying to be.
For me, one or two
stories in the book, like Parisian Blue, weren’t as
memorable as others, although still well executed, but this may be
down to some stories in the book being so memorable they simply
overshadow ones with a smaller scope. A Man Melting is still
exceptional by any standards (and at 308 pages it’s a bargain, as
long as two collections.) Cliff is a talent I look forward to seeing
more work by. The book encapsulates what the best short story should
do: resonate and hone how we see our world.
I often read a book
and wonder who I’d recommend it to. The reader who loves magical
realism and wacky scenarios? Or the fan of realist stories, full of
character and place? A Man Melting is that rare collection
I’d honestly recommend to both types of reader. There are stories
here I’ll simply never forget.
Read a story from this
collection in Sport 36
commended in The Arvon International Poetry Competition. Her poetry
collection Strip is with Salt. She secretly loves short stories. Her
own stories have appeared in Southword, Crannog, Fractured West,
Flash, Metazen and Pygmy Giant.