Stories from Other Places by Nicholas Shakespeare, book review: Starting with dreams of other lands

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Harvill Secker, £16.99. » Order at £14.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

In January 2012, François Hollande, then a candidate for the French presidency, criticised the record of the incumbent administration. To quote Shakespeare, he said "they failed because they did not start with a dream". If reading that, you think, "it's not quite Shakespeare", congratulate yourself on functioning powers of critical discrimination, because Monsieur Hollande, it turned out, committing by no means the first or final boob of his political career, wasn't quoting William Shakespeare but Nicholas.

The incident seemed weirdly of a piece with Nicholas Shakespeare's fiction, in which ordinary people frequently find themselves caught up in the drama of great historical events. It's a proclivity shown to fine effect in Stories from Other Places, especially in "Oddfellows", the opening novella sized story of doomed romance set against the only attack on Australian soil of the Great War.

Shakespeare is the son of a diplomat, and these wide-ranging stories maintain a particular, not uncritical, interest in the emotional lives of Englishmen abroad (though he is also notably drawn to female perspectives). "Freshwater Fishing", for instance, stars a spivvy expat who, trailing "a waft of England-like sulphur", sits in a Canadian lakeside bar, relating the circumstances of his disastrous marriage. The "other places" in the title are not only foreign countries, but also the past, as a setting and a point of reference. In "The Death of Marat", Dilys Hoskins, a white woman living in Africa, contemplates murdering her country's authoritarian President, inspired by Charlotte Corday's 18th century assassination of Marat. Dilys's home, though never named, is clearly a fictionalised Zimbabwe.

For Shakespeare, such parallels provide colour rather than an opportunity for reflection; these stories are essentially well-crafted historical romances. This isn't intended as a criticism. He's a charmingly straightforward writer, with a sharp eye for history's brutal absurdities.

In "The Statue", Lizardo Real, a town councillor from Bolivia, living fast and loose in 19th-century Paris, burns through the money with which he has been sent to commission a statue of General Melgarejo, a local hero and wannabe Napoleon. There are shades here of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, but the councillor's mission isn't used to examine questions of moral responsibility and greed; instead, it's the backdrop for a vivid portrait of dissolution and provincial bumptiousness. The story ends with Real's death. His townsfolk, unable to afford their original statue, are forced to settle for an unwanted likeness the sculptor has knocking around his workshop, of Napoleon's favourite, Marshal Ney.

This sad conclusion is also appropriately absurd, especially when you learn that Shakespeare, having mistakenly confirmed to journalists in 2012 that Hollande was quoting his first novel, The Vision of Elena Silves, discovered that the phrase wasn't his after all.

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