Book review: Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro
Escape Routes - Naomi Ishiguro
Well there's one thing you can say for sure about Naomi Ishiguro's first collection of short stories and it's that the author is not going to be faced with any complaints about false advertising. Escape Routes with its tag line "Step into a world less ordinary" offers exactly that across in this wonderful, simple and accessible collection that elevates everyday situations into something more insightful and meaningful.
The desire to escape a world less ordinary is very much what the characters in each one of the stories is looking for and Naomi Ishiguro expresses it in a wonderful variety of situations and ways, all of them potentially relatable to anyone who has found themselves searching for direction or overwhelmed by modern day life. Nature often plays a part in showing potential escape, but it's never that straightforward or easy and not everyone successfully finds the kind of escape they are hoping to find.
The opening story, Wizards is perhaps the most troubling and ambitious of those stories since it deals with two people with very different ways of seeking to escape from mundane lives, two people who only briefly come into contact with one another, where the encounter only highlights the greatness of disparity between their dreams and the reality of their circumstances. One is a 10 year old boy Alfie who hopes that turning 11 will bestow him with magic powers that will help him escape the grim reality of his impoverished family life. On Brighton Beach he encounters fortune-teller Luciano the Diviner, who is really called Peter, believing him to be a real live wizard. Peter is aware of the fakeness of his situation and the failure of his existence thus far until he meets Agnes, an American dream goddess in his eyes.
Wizards is filled with little details, flashbacks, memories, hopes and moments of self-realisation, Ishiguro finding perfect little ways to encapsulate the impoverishment of both Peter and Alfie's lives that resonate with significance. Never has a reference image of Bernard Matthews' Chicken Nuggets ever carried so much suggestive weight. The other stories in Escape Routes find other inventive images and metaphors for the ways in which people deal with the disappointments and pressures of their lives.
In Bear a man describes how his wife extravagantly buys a useless giant teddy bear at an auction, which in come ways comes to reflect their marriage. In Heart Problems Dan is having difficulty adjusting to life in London; it's all too much for a boy from Kerry and he is thinking of making his escape from what should be an ideal situation with a beautiful hard-working fiancée. A young 11 year old boy with dreams of working for NASA grapples with abstract concepts of 'the unknown' in Sheep Shearing. The Flat Roof deals with the loneliness of living in a big city, "the kind of place where people could just disappear", where the birds Annie speaks to on the roof of her flat offer a twist on the idea of escape.
Accelerate! is another story about living life in the fast lane in London with coffee as a stimulant to do and pack in as much as possible. it's probably the situation most recognisable to anyone who is trying to keep up with the pace of modern life, and Naomi Ishiguro captures the sense of fragmentation and detachment the ability to respond to natural feelings superbly with some lovely little observations. The writing throughout the collection is clear and concise, never striving for effect through wordplay or clever twists, but using every description, phrase and observation economically to draw the most out of character detail and get to the essence of the situation.
The longest story in the book, Rat Catcher - divided into three parts and spread across the collection - is different from the other short stories in the collection in that it has a fairy tale feel to it. Hired by the king to rid the palace of an infestation of giant rats, a lonely Rat Catcher has an unenviable task, but he begins to feel his efforts might be worthwhile when his craft appears to be appreciated by the king's young daughter Ethel, and even begins to imagine what his lonely life could be with company. Like many of the other characters in Escape Routes who gain a tantalising glimpse of something to take them out of the life trap they have built for themselves, it appears that he isn't quite ready to accept the reality and his desires may conflict with others who are looking for their escape route.
Working in a bookshop in London where she would have doubtless encountered many other like-minded people for whom books are a kind of escape from the pressures of city life or just the troubles of everyday modern life, Naomi Ishiguro - daughter of Kazuo Ishiguro - has crafted a beautiful collection of stories here that provide a momentary escape into a world less ordinary, and may even provoke a search for your own Escape Route.