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Theatre of Curious Acts by Cate Gardner

Daniel Cole wants the world to end.

Returned home from the Great War, his parents and brother in their graves, Daniel walks a ghost world. When players in a theatre show lure Daniel and his friends, fellow soldiers, into a surreal otherworld they find themselves trapped on an apocalyptic path. A pirate ship, helmed by Death, waits to ferry some of them to the end of the world.

Already broken by war, these men are now the world’s only hope in the greatest battle of all.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to read the short story Nowhere Hall by Cate Gardner. I enjoyed it a great deal, and when the chance to read more of her work arose I jumped at it.

Like an expertly crafted piece of classical music, Theatre of Curious Acts has many layers to explore, and it works very effectively on multiple levels. It can be read as a straightforward horror story, and there is certainly enough startling imagery to please the most hardened horror fan, but there is also a psychological element in play that is just as effective. Are the events unfolding all in Daniel’s head? Are Daniel and his comrades alive or already dead? Just who are the strange group of women that Daniel meets on his travels? I think it’s the mark of an exceptional writer that they are willing to leave some of the questions that are posed unanswered; I like this sense of ambiguity. Allowing readers to draw their own conclusions is a brave decision, and makes for a far more personal and engaging experience.

Any story that begins during the horrors of The Great War is going to have a sombre tone but the Theatre of Curious Acts is much more than that. I was captivated by the strength of the writing. The chapters that deal with Daniel’s return to civilian life after the war’s end are pitch perfect. Daniel, still haunted by his experiences in the trenches, yearns for it all to just end. He questions his own sanity on a regular basis and there is a sequence that details his obsession with seeking out silence as this is the only way he can try to find any form of peace. This contains one of my favourite lines of the entire story.

Sometimes the silence broke him.

Daniel’s journey from innocent teenager to world weary grown up, through the realms of life and death explores the ephemeral nature of human existence. His odyssey, and that of his brothers in arms, finds them all changed by the experiences that they share together. No one is left untouched by the torment that they all face.

The striking cover art by Simone Held also deserves a mention. The lonely figure of a man standing on a bridge looking out over a desolate sea is a simple but effective image. It captures the mood of the entire story and is a perfect compliment to a perfect story.

One of the things I mentioned the last time I read this author’s work, and it is just as true here, is that her writing has a wonderfully fluid quality.  I’m sure that different readers will take different interpretations from the events in the narrative. From the battlefields of Europe, to the end of the world, this novel is a seamless blend of physical and psychological horror that will leave a distinct impression.

Theatre of Curious Acts is available on 15th December 2011 from Hadley Rille Books

 

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