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Behind a Broken Smile cover

Behind a Broken Smile by Penny Jones

(Black Shuck Books, 2022)

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal

Penny Jones is a Devon-based horror writer. She is a short fiction author with a previously published collection, Suffer Little Children (Black Shuck Books), that was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award in 2020 (for Best Newcomer). Her novella, Matryoshka, was also a finalist for the British Fantasy Award in 2022.

Behind a Broken Smile is Jones’ second collection. In it, Jones draws inspiration from the word sonder—defined as the realisation that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as your own, despite your lack of awareness of it.

For Jones we are all the protagonists in our own story, but in somebody else’s story we may also be the supporting cast or even the villain. And these are, of course, stories of the horrific and the startling, so some form of villains are often on display.

Along with the concept of sonder, Jones’ collection made me think of the adage that writers adopt masks to hide who they are. Those masks often evolve into the protagonists of the stories and the writers wear them to immerse themselves—and us—in the drama.

With this idea in mind, horror writers, possibly wear masks within masks. Often Jones’ characters exist in milieus that are normal, familiar, even bland. In these stories the humdrum nature of the character’s lives prove to be so convincing that we momentarily forget about the writer, hiding behind her mask, preparing to bring forth the horrific with deft efficiency.

The reader should be warned, masks are, by implication, designed to obscure and, pressing the analogy further, masks are deceptive and often used dishonestly.

Deception and dishonesty—rather than being criticisms, are perhaps essential qualities of the horror writer.

In terms of narrative devices to propel her storytelling, Behind a Broken Smile is enjoyably diverse. Jones’ premises slalom between domesticity, childhood, adolescence, and married life and between settings of the urban and the English countryside. Jones presents us with the stories of children playing with dolls, harassed middle managers, suburban marriages, and women trapped in quiet desperation. These stories are spun with a mix of dark humour that entwines comedy with the horrific. To paraphrase Priya Sharma: Jones is a writer of the delicate, the droll, and the shocking, and also that Jones is “always pleasingly weird.”

Readers can expect to be challenged—emotionally and intellectually—by the abrupt turns that these stories take.

As well as her work in characterisation, setting and surprise denouements, Jones describes the collection as having its own ‘backbone’—a framing that enables the reader to experience a continuous journey made up of the smaller vignettes that are each story. For Jones, that backbone is the fragility of mental health. The writer explores the commonplace and suburban challenges to our mental health, and how her characters function—and sometimes bloodily fail—to manage those challenges.

Challenges to characters are a common jumping off point for horror fiction. This collection also presents challenges to the reader—Jones, sets about establishing mundane conventions that could be boring, and then refashions them by stripping away the very preconceptions that she has so carefully built up to give us revelations that are new and often terrifying.

As many readers will know, the tent poles that carry any collection are the first and last stories. The two stories that open and close the collection, “Waxing” and “Behind a Broken Smile,” feature first person narrators speaking to us in the present tense. This offers a stylistic challenge but also the immediacy of the form. They are both stories about a protagonist’s relationship with a doll. The doll motif often features in horror fiction and is here put to intimate use in the emotionally charged world of eating disorders and familial abuse.

Jones has said that she is drawn to the unreliable narrator as a device in her fiction. Many of Jones’ characters in Behind a Broken Smile are unreliable due to their mental state, or their age, or that reality deforms and crumbles around them. Their cumulative stories have the effect of carrying the reader through a fevered oneiric landscape.

With this assault on the protagonists’ mental health, this collection is perhaps not for the faint-hearted. Behind a Broken Smile is by turns, an engaging, humorous, arresting and shocking look at human frailty through the lens of British horror writing.

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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