Ian Sansom is back with another antidote to the festive season in his second collection of December Stories, which contains a story for every day of the month, which each of the 31 pieces presenting a particularly contrasting take on ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. Focusing on those recognisable emotions and trials that come with the festive season, December Stories II features anticipation, frustration, despair and joy.
As with his previous collection, these short stories, vignettes and literary curiosities explore the slightly ambivalent relationship that everyone has with the festive season and is a reminder that we may all celebrate Christmas, but none of us celebrate it in the same way.
A whole host of experiences fill these stories; a husband’s attempt to clear up little DIY jobs in time for Christmas has disastrous consequences, a couple’s argument over how to decorate their flat could spell the end of their relationship, a potential son-in-law who happens to be vegan makes life difficult for one put-upon mother, and a Christmas guardian angel appears to one lucky man, but he happens to look like Ray Winstone and swear like a trooper.
There is a seasonally subversive tone to many of the pieces in this collection, which is packed with dark humour. In ‘Hitler’s Secret Drug Habit’, a family tries to navigate the Christmas TV schedules in a bid to keep everyone happy.
Christmas is a special time for all the family. At Christmas there are no TV rules. At Christmas we always buy a Christmas Radio Times and everyone marks up which programmes they want to watch. That way you won’t miss anything new. That way you won’t miss anything at all.
In the brilliant ‘My Christmas List?’ the unnamed narrator lists all the gifts they would like to receive which includes a bead kit, a Stetson, an antique magnifying glass and a bugle amongst other things
I want a happy little monkey. Not a sad monkey trafficked on the dark web. A well-cared for monkey. Maybe – I don’t know – a capuchin? And please do not substitute the monkey with a micro-pig or a hamster. It really has to be a monkey.
In the most affecting of these stories, humour gives way to pathos as when a man remembers the portable bar his father used to set up in the corner of the living room every Christmas, while he navigates his current battle with alcoholism. In ‘A Silver Lining Story’ the press features the story of a baker who started a lockdown business selling sourdough starter kits, but they gloss over the fact that his has wife died and he is spending Christmas lost, struggling and alone.
Seasonal loneliness looms large across the collection. Christmas is always considered a time for family, a time to come together and celebrate. But what happens if your family is fractured or broken and things can never be the same again?
In ‘Mixtape’, a man plays a Christmas mixtape his brother made when he was having major surgery – a surgery from which he didn’t survive. In ‘The Drop’, a builder on his last shift before Christmas realises he can’t go on and that this might be his last shift in more ways than one. ‘Clearance’ is a heart-breaking exploration of loss as a woman tries to recreate her childhood shopping trips when her mother would take her to buy a winter coat.
And then she goes into her cubicle and I go into mine. And I can hear her undressing and redressing but she doesn’t leave for a very long time and I stay and wait for her to emerge by the counter. But nobody comes. Because nobody is there. It’s just me, in the department store, waiting for my mother.
This collection of December Stories feels slightly darker than the first instalment, refusing to shy away from the sometimes painful reality of Christmas and the intensity of the feelings that the season can conjure, but it is by no means a depressing read. There is humour and hope in all the pages here and a reminder to focus on the small good things, the things that bring us moments of joy amid the shopping, planning and general madness of Christmastime.
December Stories II features gorgeous illustrations by Fruzsina Czech and is beautifully published by No Alibis Press making it the perfect book for this strange and wonderful time of the year.
Fittingly, this is my last review before Christmas, so I hope you all have a wonderful time, however you plan to celebrate!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!