The Secret Life of the Panda by Nick Jackson

Rating 7.5/10
Diverse, thoughtful and well-written short stories.

The Secret Life of the Panda (Chomu Press, December 12, 2011) is a collection of fourteen diverse short stories written by former librarian and current teacher, Nick Jackson (Visits to the Flea Circus).

The stories in The Secret Life of the Panda encompass diverse settings and situations: revolutionaries in South America, a heretical naturalist in 16th Century Holland, the private worlds of those growing up and growing old in contemporary Britain. But in all of them Nick Jackson captures with precise external imagery and inward observation moments of penetrating personal significance for the characters. This subtle but exotic collection forms a menagerie of the imagination, in which the reader encounters a variety of creatures from water fleas to oropendola birds, appearing as specimens to be anatomically examined or as totems enabling the characters to live those parts of themselves otherwise hidden.

A collection of short stories is always difficult to review (and I am also reliably informed that they are just as difficult to market). What is best thing to do? Review the fourteen stories individually or simply express a general opinion and highlight the stand-outs? I've opted for the latter.

And my general opinion of the collection is that all the stories contained within are well-written and engaging. My personal favourite was Shell Fire, the tale of an ageing school caretaker who finds himself surplus to requirements as the result of cost-cutting. Also worthy of mention are the titular The Secret Life of the Panda, which tells of a couple whose married life has settled into a comfortable but unexceptional existence until the woman discovers she is pregnant and tough decisions need to be made. Flaubert’s Poison cleverly portrays adolescent growing pains and awkwardness and The Island which - as was also the case in The Secret Life of the Panda - depicts marriage as a rather hollow existence where time needs to be constantly occupied to avoid confronting the reality of a life wasted. All the stories were good but those mentioned above were very good.

Each and every story had an element of interest for me but the thing that I found most difficult was the use of allegory, with the stories appearing to contain hidden meanings which I am afraid were often lost on me. My feelings are not as strong as JRR Tolkien who went on record as saying, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence" but I have never been particularly comfortable with it. I recently read Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer, which was, like Jackson's work, beautifully written but I constantly felt that I missing something important. Maybe it is because I am a Northerner and like plain, blunt speech but I do find writing of this type can often leave me feeling alienated, as if it is for those more scholarly than myself. But I must stress that this did not stop me from enjoying the stories but did play a part in my inability to fully immerse myself in the collection. Maybe I am just a little to literal in my thoughts? I've often thought so.

So please don't let the above comment on allegory (if indeed that is what it is) put you off at all, I only wanted to mention my own reading experience and let prospective readers know that stories leave much open to interpretation. The Secret Life of the Panda is an often dark and occasionally depressing collection that is elegantly written and I recommend it for looking for a a collection of diverse, thoughtful and well-written short stories.

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