Books: It's a cool world

SKIN by Tobias Hill Faber pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
These stories are nothing if not ambitious in scope: an antidote to those frail, go-nowhere exercises in solipsism you might expect from a debut collection. Casually cosmopolitan, Hill sneaks us into the back room of a Japanese tattoo artist, watching as the taciturn "skin digger" leans over the body of a Yakuza member "like a fisherman gutting tuna". We spin back to the gangster's wartime childhood and forward to the present- day police investigations into the identity of an acid-burned body found in a wrecked trailer on Hokkaido. In other stories we work behind the scenes and after hours at London Zoo; honeymoon in Los Angeles during the riots; lounge on a beach in Venezuela with an aged, proud fisherman. If Hill is writing about what he knows, then he seems to know an awful lot.

The virtuoso title story, about the unidentifiable Yakuza corpse, is 57 pages long, but Hill can also manoeuvre in tight spaces: "Losing Track" is panicky and bitterly sad, a movie-length narrative compressed into 18 pages, about a croupier who falls fatally in love with a punter.

Hill's tone is disinterested, neutral, but he is drawn towards the violent, queasy and bizarre. There is a formal, crafted quality to his tales, which makes the occasional lunge into Grand Guignol even more unsettling. In "The World Feast" (thematically reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History), Alia, a Brummie student adrift in Brighton, moves into a house with a strange secret. "We are food-crazy. We explore world cultures and break down taboos." Her fellow students belong to a select dinner club, sharing a series of disgusting meals with their Nietzschean lecturer: natto, "the rotten beans of the soya plant"; puffer fish; heron roasted with sandalwood and raspberries; a peacock ("it's a trick to get it back into the skin after roasting. Barely fits, like a swollen foot"). They fend off animal rights activists ("Dormice. No, I've never heard anything like that in relation to Professor Hayter") and regretfully wind up proceedings in one last banquet at which the centrepiece dish is ... you've guessed, haven't you? "Meat's meat."

Hill's themes are the playfulness of menace, and the menace in play. A group of children run wild out of doors, to the alarm of their civilised parents: "There's satanists and god knows what in the woods ... foxes nailed up and hedgehog skins where the tinkers eat them." Little do they know what their own little darlings get up to. In "Hammerhead", the threat is dangled then abruptly twitched away. In "Losing Track", the worst happens, without the narrator missing a beat.

This seemingly effortless literary vagabondage has two odd consquences for his stories. The first: there's occasionally a touch of "McWorld", a samey-ness, for all the glamour of the backdrops. Someone so at home everywhere is ultimately at home nowhere. The second: Hill's slightly less convincing in non-exotic settings; perhaps we're just jaded, accustomed now to richer things, or he's relying too much on unfamiliarity for his effects. He rarely goes for penny-plain narrators: Alia, the Brighton student, is Asian; Anja, the London zoo-worker, is a rarified Finn with Karelian blood, hailing from "Finland's lost eastern isthmus". Sometimes it's exoticism for exoticism's sake: "She walks into a bar in Prague and there he is, drinking absinthe at noon" is Hill's "Once upon a time ..."

Hill, born in 1970, is also a praised poet, as his sharp images attest. The woman on the one-armed bandit who attracts the attention of Calvin the croupier, has, he notices, ginger hair: "Not ginger like the word. Ginger like ginger: the lion-fur of the root when you cut against its grain ... After an hour she changes arms, starts pulling with her left. Milking the slot while she flexes blood back into her right hand."

He even has an elegant go at that difficult subject, the supernatural. Dan, Net-surfer, nerd, father of dead twin girls, finds a site called Internet Ouija; as long as he keeps his screensaver on, two little presences hover around his computer. It's as ambiguous and tantalising as all good ghost stories.

He overplays very rarely, erring towards obliquity rather than obviousness. His best pieces are the longest ones, where he has room to stretch and relax out of the determined coolness which occasionally feels more like a premature mannerism than a style. That said, this is a distinctive and sensitive first collection from an assured new voice.