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Rust and Bone, By Craig Davidson

The squalid and the whale

The path from work of fiction to film adaptation can be a circuitous one, fraught with challenges that can make the final movie a very different proposition to the original text. Even with that in mind, if I'd been asked, upon its original publication in 2006, what a movie derived from Craig Davidson's visceral, pummelling debut short story collection would look like, the last thing I would have plumped for would have been an award-winning French art-house romance flick. But so it has come to pass, directed by Jacques Audiard, starring Marion Cotillard and with a host of rave reviews and festival prizes under its belt.

All of which is a fantastic excuse for Picador to republish the Canadian author's debut collection; a book that thoroughly deserves a far wider readership than it received first time around.

There are eight stories here, each one a bristling, scathing examination of how life can grind you down – how essentially good people can be shafted by circumstances and wind up in a whole heap of trouble.

The film has taken two of the best tales from the book and merged them into an uplifting story of love in the face of adversity. The titular "Rust and Bone" sees a bare-knuckle boxer, well past his prime, keep stepping into the ring in a continuing attempt to atone for past sins, while "Rocket Ride" sees a trainer of killer whales (who, in this instance, unlike in the movie, is a male character) struggling to come to terms with a terrible accident in the pool with one of his charges.

Both stories do a brilliant job of describing the mindset of the dispossessed, and Davidson's talent for telling detail and gritty, flint-like prose lifts the stories out of the quotidian and makes them into truly moving pieces of work.

And the same goes for the other scintillating tales here. In "A Mean Utility" a man trains dogs for illegal fights in an effort to compensate for his impotent home life, while "On Sleepless Roads" is about a struggling repo-man who has an epiphany as he seeks to reconnect with his disabled wife, courtesy of a chance meeting on a job.

Davidson's characters are continually banging their heads against the flip side of the American (or Canadian) dream, having to reassess their lives in the face of what the world has thrown at them. In "The Rifleman", a no-good drunken dad has to confront the fact that his teenage basketball-protégé son no longer wants to live out his dream; while "Life in the Flesh" returns to the boxing motif of "Rust and Bone", as an ageing trainer attempts to rein in a hothead kid in the sweaty back streets of Bangkok.

The unflinching nature of Davidson's prose might be too much to take, if he didn't leaven his tales with a deep empathy for his characters, and leave the reader with the sense that, in the face of it all, the human spirit can somehow thrive. Brilliant work.