Review: Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman

Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert ShearmanMany people met Robert Shearman at Aussiecon 4 in September, and we bandied about words like ‘funny’ and ‘adorable’ and ‘wicked’. Well, I bandied them at any rate. And Rob Shearman is all those things. He is also sharp, smart and extraordinarily gifted.

I picked up Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical because I like Rob Shearman, I liked his Dr Who episode, ‘Dalek’, and the strangely dark story Road Kill that was published by Twelfth Planet Press. I had just appeared on an Aussiecon panel with him about SF and Theatre, too. I wanted to find out more about his work. John Richards (of Boxcutters) had read the collection of short stories and said that they were bleak. Rob insisted that they were funny.

I’ve read the whole collection now. It turns out that John and Rob are both correct.

Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical is a collection of short stories about love. Not about happy-clappy, soppy, head-over-heels love – but about what love is, and isn’t. It’s about what love does to us, and how it hurts us, and how we are afraid of it. Ultimately, it’s also about love’s potential, and how it can be sublime as well as all those other things.

Some of the stories are indeed very funny. The opening tale, Love Among the Lobelias, explores what happens when the Devil launches his writing career. His attempts to explore his softer side have unintended consequences and it seems that there are people in the world more evil than the Prince of Darkness. 14.2 is another darkly funny tale and a warning about attempts to measure or quantify love.

There are very dark, bleak and bitter stories too. There are tragedies and horror stories. Be of Good Cheer, about a woman who suffers physical pain when other people are happy, and so the man who loves her keeps himself miserable for her sake, reminded me so strongly of people that I know that I found it devastating.

Among the tales of bleakness and darkness, there are gentle, sweet stories too, like Love in a Time of Sharing, and forgiving stories, like Luxembourg.

Towards the end, Not About Love becomes surreally metatextual. It’s a story about this collection of stories, where the dark subjects within are criticised by Shearman’s own family. It’s like he’s answering the critics already about what he thinks of love, and his own apparent cynicism on the subject. This leads into One Last Love Song, which is as uneasy and complicated as all the rest, but is also a statement about the transcedence of love without being in the slightest bit mawkish or sentimental.

Robert Shearman very much deserves the awards he has been gathering for Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical – which include a British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. He won in the same category for the Shirley Jackson Awards. His love stories are not always easy reading. Even the funny ones are full of humanity being fragile, cruel or selfish. But there is also kindness and, yes, love.

Love is complex and sometimes twisted, and it’s a joy (and a heartbreak) to read a collection of stories about love which manages to be both knowing and forgiving of all humanity’s flaws.

You can read more about Robert Shearman, or just head on over to Big Finish or to buy a copy. Do it now while the Australian dollar is in good health against the pound! (I can’t find an Australian online bookseller that has it in stock!)