Escape Routes

Naomi Ishiguro

Tinder Press, £14.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

You only get one chance to make a first impression. And only someone who’s actually been in Naomi Ishiguro’s shoes can know the pressure of trying to establish yourself as an author when your father, Kazuo, is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well aware of the unwelcome but inevitable comparisons her surname will bring, this alumnus of East Anglia’s Creative Writing course has crafted these nine short stories with rigour and discipline in mind, building, for the most part, on strong central ideas. Nothing here feels throwaway, and there are even signs of playing it too safe.

The blurb on the jacket hints that she’s a fantasy author. But, outside the imaginary kingdom of the Rat Catcher, there’s really only one truly inexplicable occurrence here. Ishiguro’s imagination is a place where the fantastical lurks in the margins as a possibility, a flavour rather than a genre. The supernatural threatens to take over her narratives, but in the end bends them only slightly as she pulls back to reveal that she’s been writing about human weaknesses and foibles all along. This works extremely well in stories like Wizards, in which Alfie, a young boy who expects to gain magic powers when he turns 11, finds real life dovetailing neatly with his fantasy.

Almost as prominent in this collection is how the relentless pace of life in London can grind people down. In Heart Problems, one of her many male narrators is “labouring under some kind of unidentified yet all-consuming sickness” and keeps a suitcase packed so he can escape back to rural Ireland at a moment’s notice. Evgeny in Accelerate! only falls into the rhythm of life in London when he gets hooked on coffee and suddenly becomes very confident and productive. Falling into a relationship with Annalise, who has a very different perception of time, sets up an irreconcilable tension.

Through it all, one has the feeling that she’s champing at the bit to write a proper dark fairy story, and she succumbs to the urge with The Rat Catcher, the longest piece, split into three parts distributed throughout the book. In a jumbled landscape of medieval castles and abandoned factories, a connoisseur of poisons and builder of ingenious traps is summoned by the king to rid his castle of a plague of oversized rats, arriving to find a decaying and almost empty building and an enigmatic princess. Ishiguro fools us with not one but two false endings, finally winding up Escape Routes with a grand flourish.

There are occasional misfires. Heart Problems feels like it got lost on its way to an ending, and as much as I liked the building tension in Bear, not everyone will feel satisfied with the explanation of the power the giant teddy bear exerts on the newlyweds who buy it at an auction. Even the centrepiece, The Rat Catcher, which starts with a strong standalone, comes to feel overextended. Nevertheless, it’s a solid debut with some standouts which hint at an imagination we’ve still only seen slivers of.