Camilla Grudova first came to attention for her sickly, quasi-gothic short stories, which formed a debut collection in 2017. A full-length novel, 2022’s Children Of Paradise – set in a Scottish cinema, and based in the very loosest sense on her own job – scooped Canadian expat Grudova award nominations of the type publishers trumpet on book jacket design. Naturally, then, The Coiled Serpent retreats from the format where she found most acclaim, 16 more short stories ripe with cruelty, viscera and obscure obsessions.
The characters Grudova sketches are wretched and absurd, as before, but perhaps more fleshed-out and more outwardly sexual (invariably to their detriment). By no means hectoring in its politics, a reader won’t have to reach too deep into subtext to locate parables on capitalism (in its most formative, boss-versus-worker-class form), masculinity (a trio of computer programmers discover a book on male spirituality, also titled The Coiled Serpent, and unwisely heed its advice) and the British class system. Ivor, a story set in a boarding school where pupils remain stationed late into life, is benign in its descriptive style but escalates into something ghastly and fantastical.
Adding intrigue are the minor details running through these otherwise unrelated stories: two are set in Margate, a town Grudova has no obvious connection with, and “horse glue” is a suitably lurid substance to be afforded frequent mention. Wit is abundant, lightheartedness less so, but shorn of their more explicit passages plenty of these tales could function as children’s fiction in the malevolent lineage of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl – which is to pay The Coiled Serpent rich compliments.
The Coiled Serpent, Camilla Grudova (Atlantic)
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words NOEL GARDNER