Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro — book review

91JENwjsWpL.jpgLike many collections of short stories Naomi Ishiguro’s Escape Routes is a bit of a mixed bag.
The stories collected in Escape Routes are centred around individuals who feel ‘trapped’. Throughout the course of these narratives Ishiguro’s characters seem to undergo some sort of existentialist crisis. Most are mystified by their present and deeply uncertain of their future. Some crave to break free from what they perceive to be an unfulfilling or somehow undesirable existence. Others believe that there is something deeply wrong with them, physically or psychologically. There are also those who feel pressured by their parents, partners, or friends, to be someone they are not.
At times it is the possibility of the fantastic that changes their circumstances. On other occasions an encounter, with other people or with nature, might lead them to a path of self-acceptance or self-reconciliation.

In theory I appreciated the themes that Ishiguro explores in her narratives. Given the economical nature of the short story Ishiguro doesn’t waste her words as she often begins her stories by emphasising or addressing what troubles her characters’ minds. Ishiguro also demonstrates an intelligent and efficient use of the English language. Frequently she articulates her characters’ unease in an amusing manner. Ishiguro’s dialogues also demonstrate her ability to render the different ways in which people speak or express themselves as well as giving an impression of those pauses and inflections that characterise most conversations.

For the most part I enjoyed the humour with which she imbues her stories. Her characters are not to be taken too seriously and in depicting their predicaments she often adapts an ironic and vaguely self-aware tone. While she doesn’t make light of her characters’ various troubles, she does hint towards a self-dramatisation on their part.

Sadly, as much as I liked her writing style and the themes at the core of her stories I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed any of her stories. Most of these narratives are characterised by a studied weirdness, one that comes across as artificial. Whereas through her characters’ inner monologues and their conversations with others Ishiguro creates and maintains a sense of almost Wes Andersonesque absurdity, these more blatantly bizarre elements lessened the ‘ordinary yet surreal’ quality of her stories.
While the start of her stories are promising enough, they soon seemed to fall into a rather predictable ‘this-is-how-you-write-a-short-story’ structure. Rather than suffusing her narratives with a natural sense of ambiguity, Ishiguro mostly relies on her endings in order to ‘subvert’ our expectations. The perplexing and open-ended way in which her stories culminate in seemed more contrived than enigmatic.

The first two stories—‘Wizards’ and ‘Bears’—were perhaps the most successful ones in this collection. One follows a young boy and a rather child-like man in their quest for ‘more’. The boy hopes for magic while the man seems on the lookout for some sort of sign. Both of them feel that their parents’ would not accept or understand their true selves. The other is a quirky tale in which a man becomes paranoid over a stuffed bear.
Stories such as ‘Heart Problems’ and ‘Accelerate!’ were okay…if almost entirely forgettable. They played around with perspective, which kept me somewhat engaged but their endings were somewhat uninspiring.
This collection also includes a story that is divided in three parts: ‘The Rat Catcher I, II, and III’. This was the only story I actively disliked. It had this unsuccessful grotesque tone, a gimmicky and unconvincing ‘historical’ setting, and an incredibly derivative storyline. It’s never a good sign when you want to skim or skip a short story.

Perhaps I’ve read too many short stories by Shirley Jackson or watched too much stuff by David Lynch to be truly troubled or intrigued by Ishiguro’s work. While I can recognise that she a clearly talented writer (I wish I had her command of the English language) her storylines seemed to be held back by this conventional type of weirdness and a general lack of subtlety.
Rather than developing or expanding on the themes of entrapment and alienation, Ishiguro’s narratives are hampered by these attempts to ‘startle’ the reader with enigmatic—and incredibly formulaic—elements and endings.
Most of her stories rely perhaps a bit too much on capturing a character’s meandering line-of-thoughts. Their moments of introspection or self-analysis are interrupted by abstract contemplations which did little to add some emotional depth. If anything the characters’ zigzagging thoughts lessened my interest in them and their stories.

Overall, while I can’t deny that Ishiguro is more than a capable writer, Escape Routes wasn’t a memorable read.
I wasn’t enchanted, mesmerised, or surprised by her narratives, and for the most part I was too aware of the fictionality of her stories to be able to suspend my disbelief or to truly ‘immerse’ myself into what I was reading.
Nevertheless, just because I wasn’t able to form an emotional attachment to Ishiguro’s characters and their stories doesn’t mean that other readers won’t like them, in fact, I hope that other people will appreciate Ishiguro’s work more than I did.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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