Hang him when he is not there is the debut collection of fiction from Brisbane-based writer Nicholas John Turner. Combining eight works of short fiction, the book is described as exploring “a world on the fringes of great art; editors, audiences, academics, amateurs, lovers, failures, onlookers and innocent bystanders”. But this intricate and subtly interwoven series of short stories is also a succinct yet detailed examination of the human psyche.
From the staff and residents of a nursing home to a self-aware alcoholic isolated by his own consumption, all the characters are abruptly realistic and their descriptions, at times, border on grotesque due to the unashamed portrayal of human flaws. The book is divided, with some stories taking the form of marginally more plot-focused third person narratives while other pieces are heavily character-driven works of first person fiction.
This change in point of view between stories makes for interesting reading. It allows readers to follow the strangely connected lives of remarkably average characters in Local anaesthetic and What he meant when he said, while the circular, neurotic writing in I want to be honest with you, Sir and No time to call home engrosses the reader in separate worlds of isolation.
Overall, the stories focus on character, interactions and the impact of art. This pull away from the conventional plot-driven narrative, in parts, makes it seem like the stories end before the plot points have been resolved. But this technique is remarkably effective in creating the illusion that you’ve peered through a window into each characters life, if only momentarily. In this sense, the book accurately portrays the somewhat fleeting nature of human interaction as the reader forms only a brief connection with each character before being thrust into the life of another.
Despite the complexity of the underlying themes and the sophistication of the interweaving stories, this series is not pretentious in its execution and makes for leisurely reading. Turner uses humorous, cynical and suitably jarring metaphors throughout to describe remarkably ordinary characters in vivid detail and he allows characters to reveal their innermost insecurities subtly and without warning.
Hang him when he is not there is not a safe first work of fiction. Rather, it takes risks and challenges conventions mostly masterfully. It’s anything but formulaic, denying expectations of the usual literary form and replacing them frustratingly beautiful snapshots of mediocre lives.