It is hard to articulate an emotional response towards Strange, Shreya Sen-Handley’s collection of short stories. The collection oscillates between sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, mental health, surrealism and dystopia. The closest one gets is an eerie head tilt, the kind that you see a dark-coloured cat do when it seems to be staring right through your soul.
What Handley has perfected is the art of deliberate obfuscation to throw the reader off. She creates an ether-like environment by revealing minimal detail. A most reluctant narrator and an accomplished illusionist, she shows only what she wants you to see. Halfway through the collection, the reader starts fearing what she holds in her other hand, the one she hides behind her back. Thematic parallels can be drawn to Black Mirror and Love, Death and Robots. Similar to these shows her stories begin from a point, in reality, a surrounding that is relatable and then it is her prose that lifts her universe just a few inches above the ground until it floats above our own, shimmering and within it a constant, sinister reflection of our own. In Handley’s worlds, the reader is a sleepwalking tourist completely at her mercy, walking with only a hazy image in front of them.
Handley’s plot and world-building often rely on inversion. In Long In The Blue Tooth, a Jetsons type futuristic scenario is shown where retired domestic worker robots are harassed by young boys. In The Scare, a bullied man resorts to a life of petty theft to vent his frustration and assert control, until an investigation looks into the cause of his mother’s death. In The Memory Project what seems to be an old affair is spun into a surreal, fantasy sequence of events in an attempt to avoid confrontation.
Another tool that Handley employs rather well is the penultimate twist. It is a fine balancing act she pulls off ensuring the penultimate twist is devastating enough to appear to be the final one and yet the final twist still builds up. In a short story structure where pacing is key achieving this requires special mention. In Lean On Me, a wheelchair dependent man enters into a relationship with his healthcare worker and moves into her home. Erratic behavior on his part soon leads to a discovery of many other potential lovers being cultivated online and his exit from her home. What he leaves behind is shockingly poetic. In The Bone Of Contention, a dying dog performs one last act of service for his already dead master by unearthing one last pile of bones. In The Little Things, a woman leaves her lover to go home to her husband and children contemplating the polar opposite needs that both satiate. Once at home she is reminded that she has once again not taken her medication. Beyonce And Jay-Ji is perhaps the best example of this and easily my favorite story in the collection. A suspected pedophile is released once the police realize all he’s been peddling is illegal music. The communication breakdown between the cops and the perp is hilarious. The language is scintillating and Handley drops dope rapper names to her street cred. The police in their haste forget to interview the only girl in the group who is quieter than usual.
Handley also has a few zingers by way of opening lines peppered through this collection including my favorite, “Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba walk into a bar...” Often she uses unconventional words and structure to hammer home the strangeness of the collection which has a wonderful effect, such as the word ‘un-undressed.’ It this strangeness in words that one hopes there would have been more of, rather than eloquent prose. Given the nature of the collection, one starts looking for red herrings, and in some cases, they are a bit easy to spot or the buildup reveals more than it should have but these are minor quibbles.
Shreya Sen-Handley’s Strange is a lovely little eccentric collection that merits a place on any bookshelf. One would call it a success simply by how badly one wants to invite the author to tea point at various passages and demand more details. Such as what was on the chit that was passed to Arnie. Each story is so well interlinked so finely constructed that the reader tends to go back and forth to ensure there is no tiny detail that has escaped the first read. Handley’s is a refreshing voice in the scares department and one hopes it will only get louder and creepier. If you are into the ‘chills’ this is not to be missed.