I enjoyed Rhiannon Lewis’ My Beautiful Imperial, a fascinating novel set in 19th century Wales and Chile, so I was pleased to receive a copy of her new book, I am the Mask Maker and other stories. This is a collection of eleven short stories, some of which have previously been shortlisted or won prizes in literary competitions and been published in other anthologies. The stories are very varied (apart from two which work together as a pair and provide opposite perspectives on the same event). The settings range from a farm in 1960s Wales and a nursing home for the elderly to a bookshop in London and a version of heaven where the angels have decommissioned their halos and are getting ready to leave. Some of the stories are funny and uplifting; others are more poignant, but every one of them left me with a lot to think about.
I find it difficult to write about the individual stories in collections like this without giving away too many of the surprises that each one contains, so I will just briefly highlight a few that I thought were particularly impressive. These include Piano Solo, the story of an unhappy, middle-aged school teacher whose life takes on new meaning when he sits down at his piano, and Being Bob, in which an Oscar-winning actor takes the place of his driver, Bob, for the day – with unexpected results. But I think my favourite story was The Significance of Swans, an eerie tale of disappearances following the sighting of seven flying swans. I was so intrigued by this one and wished it had been longer!
The final story in the collection, I am the Mask Maker, also deserves a mention. When I first saw the title it made me think of the masks many of us have been wearing throughout the pandemic, but this is a story set in Renaissance Venice where our young narrator dreams of learning to make the beautiful decorative masks for which the city is famous. However, halfway through the story it becomes obvious that it’s much more timely than it appeared to be at first.
I’m not always a fan of short stories as I prefer fiction in its longer form, but I found these eleven stories entertaining, original and thought-provoking – and the perfect length for dipping into as a break from my other current reads. It’s also nice to be able to support a small independent publisher like Victorina Press. The book ends with a short piece by the artist David Hopkins describing his artwork which appears on the cover of the book. The painting is called Javi and fits the ‘mask’ theme of the book. I found it very interesting to read about the background to the painting and how he came to create it!
Thanks to Rhiannon Lewis and Victorina Press for providing a copy of this book for review.