Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman

The book Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman surrounded by green leaves and pink and white flowers.

I rarely read short stories, but Fragile Things reminded me why I should.  This collection of thirty-one short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman was a treasure trove of tales, some of which I wished were full novels (which one did became). Others were perfectly designed to be just a glimpse of a secret world, hidden just under the reality we think we know.

This also coincided with me getting to see Neil Gaiman perform (read? speak? I’m not quite sure what the proper descriptor is) on tour last week.  It was an amazing experience and if you ever get the chance to see him live, I strongly urge you to take it. Enjoying a pre-show dinner, my friend and I happened to be sitting next to a pair of sisters who were also going to attend the show. When they asked if I could take their picture, I not only said yes, but pulled my copy of Fragile Things from my purse so they could use it as a prop. It pays to always have a book in your bag!

I’d seen Neil once before, when Norse Mythology came out.  I wasn’t sure what to expect this time, since there wasn’t a specific new book or project to promote.  But that didn’t matter.  He read a short story and some poems of his, he answered questions the audience wrote on index cards before the show, and talked about writing and reading and the power of stories.  Both times that I’ve heard him speak, I’ve come away wanting to do nothing more than grab a pen and paper and start writing.  What I would write, I have no idea.  But ideas are bouncing around and maybe someday they’ll find their way onto a page.

In the meantime, though, a few thoughts on Fragile Things.  I won’t go over each individual entry, but one of the things I enjoyed was the introduction, where Neil explained the genesis of each story and includes a bonus story within those descriptions.  The introduction’s an interesting insight into ideas incarnating into something tangible. 

I was then hooked right off the bat by “A Study in Emerald”, a Sherlock Holmes story set in an H.P. Lovecraftian world.  (This was one of the stories that I wished could be a full novel.) Even though I’ve technically never read either a Sherlock Holmes or H.P. Lovecraft novel, I really enjoyed both. (I have seen enough Star Trek episodes with Data playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck, so that counts, right?)

Next, as someone who read The Chronicles of Narnia over and over as a kid, I really appreciated “The Problem of Susan.” Anyone who feels like Susan was mistreated by Lewis can find some characters here who share that righteous indignation. There are also several poems sprinkled throughout this collection, which again made me want to break out some of my old notebooks and start trying to write again.

I found Neil through Tori Amos and her numerous references to him in many of her songs.  By delightful quirk of fate or intentional ordering of the universe, she performed at the same theater I saw Neil at just a few days later, which I also attended.  (And I ended up sitting in almost the exact same seats just on opposite sides of the theater for both.) It was amazing and wonderful and magical to be able to bask in the presence of two of my favorite creators in such close proximity.  Fragile Things also served as a bridge, as two of the entries were character sketches he wrote for two of Tori’s albums – Strange Little Girls and Scarlet’s Walk.  You don’t need to know the albums or be fans of Tori to get them, but as someone who did obsessively go through the liner notes and has listened to the albums numerous times, it was a satisfying bonus. 

I could go on and on, talking about the what happened to Miss Finch, or the short sequel to American Gods that concludes this collection. But suffice it to say that this was a superb group of stories. If you like short story collections, pick this up.  If you like Neil, pick this up.  If you’ve never read anything by Neil, or if you think you don’t like short stories, pick this up.  Even if you hit a tale you don’t particularly like, you’ll be on to the next and visiting a whole new world. The only downside is having to leave them.

**Content warning: the story “Keepsakes and Treasures” deals with the sexual abuse and rape of the narrator’s mother and child sex abuse, within the first four or five pages. The main characters of Mr. Alice and Mr. Smith return in the final story, but if you need to skip this one, it won’t destroy your understanding of the last one.

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Fragile Things