Fugues On A Funny Bone
  by Jan Woolf

Muswell Press
First Collection

"'So what else has he done?' asked Graham suspiciously.
'Verbally abused his key worker,' replied Debbi, leafing through her agenda to quote,'contravening the authorities equal opportunities policy around race, gender, transgender and sexual orientation.'
Spare us the runes, thought Graham.
'What did he actually say then?'
'Called him a black cunt.'

Reviewed by Sara Baume

Some may consider Jan Woolf to be in a providential position as a writer.

Her many past and present lives - as a film censor, a performance artist, a theatre producer, a cultural activist and a special needs teacher - allow her to situate stories across an array of contexts and to write about each with sincerity. Unsurprisingly, there is a sentence on the back-cover of her debut collection, Fugues on a Funny Bone, which reads: "From a Hackney towpath to a day trip to Albania, she covers subjects as disparate as physics, communism and pornography." Yet the publisher’s promo is faintly misleading - the collection is closer to home and less pretentiously intellectual than its blurb suggests. Despite Albania and pornography, the stories are all linked, with each fettered to a particular point and grounded in a common message.

Our fetter-point is The Unit - an inner-city educational establishment for problematic children.

These are the sort of menacing youngsters one will get off at the wrong Tube station to avoid, who wear their ASBOs like a badge of honour. But they are also the smallest survivors of horribly tragic beginnings - victims of circumstance whose delinquency is understandable, almost reasonable. The setting is a London of drastic culture clashes. It is a city characterised by a very particular mode of speech and dress and deportment which Woolf skilfully captures through dialogue and description. The troubled teens speak in snippets, exclamations, insults and slang. The descriptive language is similarly curt and bold, although occasionally a little inelegant. Still it allows for the children's respective personalities to leak through, as does the strange nature of their camaraderie.
'You gonna blow up the tube Malik?' bellows Jordan at Finsbury Park, rocking in his seat. Malik cocks his head. '


'Yeah we'll be fucking sorry, you towel head.' Jordan lands an affectionate punch on Malik's chest. 'But you are my,' putting his arm around him, 'friend, Jordan.'


After the first five of eleven stories, the spotlight swings almost entirely from the teenagers and onto the professionals responsible for their care - chief amongst whom are Ted, The Unit's headmaster, and Hannah, a teacher on his staff.

While something of a romance emerges between them, it only ever surfaces as a footnote to other plotlines. In ANTú, Ted has endeavoured upon a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a man called Jeremy who wears corduroy trousers. In Soho Square, Hannah has left her job at The Unit to work as a film censor, watching porn movies in a dimly lit room all day long. The stories of the book's latter half demonstrate brilliantly how the professionals who staff The Unit are as intrinsically human, as flawed and infallible, as their wayward charges. While Hannah and Ted speak obligingly in the hollow jargon which has been prescribed to them and act as per protocol of the institutions to which they are bound, Woolf makes it clear that their words are laced with scepticism, their actions executed with a heavy heart.
He opens his eyes wide. 'Have you ever seen fresh snow at dawn? Have you Jeremy? Your breath frosting the air, The winter sun just rising?'

'Lovely,' says Jeremy, wondering how much longer this poetic man could survive the beauracracy of Special Needs management.
Is Woolf using her stories to subtly undermine the social system to which we are all fettered?

Her past has placed her in a privileged position, after all, to be allowed reflect with authority upon the grievances of contemporary society - upon a prevalence of unjust regulations which disregard the individual, upon an accepted over-reliance on prescription medication, upon a structure of class too sharply delineated. There are times at which Woolf seems to get carried away with the making of statements, and these tend to take precedence over the creation of character or atmosphere. As in the example of Kirsty, who works for the Tenant's Association in Muggins and the Griot, "She was just off to hatha yoga at the Gaia Centre in Stoke Newington Church Street", where "…she'd hoped to pop into Fresh and Wild for a mocha cappuccino and a veggie bean wrap." For me, such general and typical details have the exact opposite effect to that which was presumably intended - the character stops being a real person and becomes something of a symbol instead. But on the whole, Woolf's messages are apposite and her characters convincing. The stories which they shape left me both disturbed and strangely satisfied.

Each story in Fugues on a Funny Bone is prefaced by a colour photograph of a piece of work by artist, Richard Niman. Nearly all of these are details of sculptures assembled from old dolls and mannequins. A piece of writing by Niman has been included at the end, in which he suggests that the artworks were never intended to form a literal link but to operate somewhat more elusively "as an extension to the themes of the book". I am all in favour of challenging the literary fiction genre by the inclusion of imagery, but still it is something I have seldom witnessed done well. By choosing to do so, Woolf has risked being automatically considered less serious, her book less highbrow. In order to succeed, it must be done exceptionally well, as in the case of W.G. Sebald. The images must be easily relatable and flawlessly embedded. The prose must be strong enough to prove that the pictures aren't being used as a crutch for bad writing.

In the case of Fugues on a Funny Bone, the images are as unsettling and oddly alluring as the stories, yet I would question whether they added anything to a collection already cluttered by extensions of the moral kind. It is my belief that Woolf's curious mix of haunting characters, brazen humour and pertinent proclamation paint pictures far greater than the pictures themselves.

Sara Baume  is a freelance writer based in southern Ireland. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published both online and in print, from Circa art magazine to The Stinging Fly literary magazine.
Sara's other Short Reviews: J D Salinger "Nine Stories"

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Once a special needs teacher and cultural activist, Jan Woolf  is now a writer of both fiction and non-fiction as well as a painter and producer. In 2009 she became the first recipient of the Harold Pinter Writer's Residency award at the Hackney Empire. This is her first collection of short stories.

Read an interview with Jan Woolf