Last Saturday I had the privilege of seeing Neil Gaiman read his short story The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains live at the Barbican in LondonLast Saturday I had the privilege of seeing Neil Gaiman read his short story The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains live at the Barbican in London, accompanied by the illustrations of Eddie Campbell and music by the FourPlay String Orchestra. The leaflet left on the seats described it as a “revolutionary new concept of multi-media storytelling” – and yes, it really was a fantastic and unique experience! This should become a staple of cultural performances, rather than an exceptional event.
Inspired by Scottish fairy tales and legends, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a story of surprising simplicity but adds many layers of depth with its mythological references and themes. On the face of it, it is a simple story of revenge as the first lines indicate:
“You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…”
These words are uttered by a “wee man” in search for a legendary cave in the Black Mountains. On his journey he enlists the enigmatic Calum McInnes to accompany him as a guide. The rest of the book describes the two men’s quest to the cave and the increasing realization that their fates are entwined more closely than it at first seemed. The result is a rather dark tale, which contemplates how humans are lured into becoming vicious and evil by greed, retribution and seeking what lies beyond our own world and comprehension.
What I particularly enjoyed about the event was how immersive it was. Neil Gaiman’s way of story-telling is absolutely enchanting. He has a way of completely emerging you, not only in the plot but the mysterious and unnerving atmosphere the narrative creates. This was only enhanced by being read aloud. I would even argue it was meant to be read aloud, the way tales such as this used to be told many centuries ago.
But it was not just a mere reading by an incredibly gifted story-teller but engaging the audiences’ eyes and ears which drew one in even further. Eddie Campbell’s mix of art styles and use of materials evoked the landscapes of the mystical Scottish Isles perfectly. The FourPlay String Orchestra’s accompaniment, ranging from subtle background music to enhancing motifs and scenes of the story, created a beautiful and haunting atmosphere.
It is pretty obvious that I loved the event but how does the book compare as a stand alone? On its own the book has its advantages and disadvantages. I read it a few days after the event and the experience was very different. It is definitely worth re-reading so that one can pick up on things one missed the first time and dwell further on the story and its themes. The illustrations are arranged differently to match the text, which created a very different effect from the stage production, in which they had much more breathing space. Sometimes the book transitioned into pages that felt like a graphic novel, which I thought was an interesting approach. The natural difference between the two mediums does not detract from them being both an enjoyable experience. The only thing I really missed during reading the book was the music. I wished they could have added a CD to the book that the reader could play in the background.
In short, live performances are a hard act to follow. I enjoyed the multimedia approach much more than the traditional illustrated story but both versions are worth investigating in their own right. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains has a strong story, engaging, perennial themes and beautiful illustrations. It is an overall short and enjoyable experience but will also make you want to flick through the book a few more times after your first read.
The Sinclairs are blonde, beautiful, rich, distinguished – the image of a perfect family. But one summer on the family’s private island idyll the façaThe Sinclairs are blonde, beautiful, rich, distinguished – the image of a perfect family. But one summer on the family’s private island idyll the façade cracks and tragedy strikes. Cadence, the oldest granddaughter, who suffers from amnesia since, tries to puzzle together the fragments of her lost memories of that fateful summer to understand what changed her and her family so much.
The summary doesn’t do the book justice, but I don’t want to give away more because part of the reason, why this book was such an enjoyable and quick read, was its high level of suspense. The book sucks you in, keeps you guessing about the coming revelation throughout – and when everything falls into place it is unexpected and hits you hard (at least that’s what happened in my case). It’s definitely one of those well-crafted stories that when you get to the ending makes you appreciate the book as a whole and the little unnoticed hints it provided a lot more.
The characters were well-drawn, if slightly stereotypical, particularly the four “Liars”, the three eldest Sinclair grandchildren, Cadence, Mirren and Johnny, and the visiting friend Gat Patil of similar age to them, which the book focuses on. They could at times seem like a group of rich and spoilt teenage type-casts. I think, this can be forgiven though, because that is the point. One of the main themes in the book is the contrast between the ideal portraits Cadence and her family create to feed into their own illusions and mythology. They all thrive on the greatness of a glorious past now lost. Cadence herself is, of course, an unreliable narrator par excellence due to her memory loss, who can only imperfectly perceive what her trauma allows her to comprehend at subsequent stages of her recovery. Only slowly can she peel away the layers hiding the truth she is concealing from herself. This contrast is reinforced in how the whole family plays off and interacts with each other, which portray the internal struggles between keeping that mythology alive and the inevitable disillusion, which makes it falter. Each character plays their part in this process and all were very effective for the story the book wants to tell.
"We Were Liars" is beautifully written too. Its language is simple but full of allegory and metaphor. This can come off as heavy-handed at first, especially the incorporation of twisted fairy tale stories, which complement the narrative. My impression was though that the more the story progressed, the better they seemed to supplement and illustrate Cadence’s stages of remembrance and complement the themes of the book further. Mirroring in the Sinclair family, fairy tales inevitably conceal a deeper layer of darkness.
Much of what I have mentioned may seem rather cryptic but I really recommend reading this book for yourself. It is a well-crafted mystery, which will make you make you want to re-read the whole book again to hunt for all the clues you missed. But it also offers larger themes to contemplate further and (without wanting to spoil the ending) I think it has an excellent message about forgiveness, overcoming trauma and finding a way to move on in the aftermath.