British author Mark Haddon is best known for his smash hit of a first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but he’s far from a one-hit wonder. He’s penned two other novels, numerous youth titles, a volume of poetry, and now a collection of short stories. The Pier Falls, released this week by Doubleday, gathers nine of Haddon’s stories and reveals a different, darker side of his writing, starting with the title story, available at the New Statesman, in which Haddon describes, in minute detail, the carnage of a random disaster.
The story opens on a summer afternoon in 1970 at the English shore. Haddon describes the beach-goers, the peeling paint of the boardwalk railing, the souvenir shops and hotels, the carnival rides along the pier stacked with merry families on holiday who don’t know that beneath them the sixth rivet of eight is about to shear off on a load-bearing beam.
The noise, when it comes, is like the noise of a redwood being felled, wood and metal bending and splitting under pressure. Everyone looks at their feet, feeling the hum and judder of the struts. The noise stops and there is a moment of silence, as if the sea itself were holding its breath. Then, with a peal of biblical thunder, a wide semi-circle of walkway is hauled seaward by the weight of the broken girder underneath. A woman and three children standing at the rail drop instantly. Six more people are poured, scrabbling, down the half-crater of shattered wood into the sea.
There is no protagonist in “The Pier Falls,” and no antagonist either. Instead, the story’s omniscient narrator zooms in and out on the tragedy and the nameless strangers in an almost cinematic way. One second, Haddon views the pier from the crowd gathered on the beach, not quite understanding the disaster unfolding above the waves, thinking about how they’re going to tell this story to their coworkers later. The next moment, he describes with architectural precision as a belvedere on the pier twists and falls, carrying forty-seven lives into the sea. The next, he slips into the mind of a teenage boy in the cold water below, searching for his lost sister as he goes slowly hypothermic. And throughout, we are updated with time elapsed and death toll in a move reminiscent of breaking news banners at the bottom of TV screens, but much more impactful.
Sixty seconds gone, seven people dead, three survivors in the water. The man with the braces and the rolled-up sleeves is still alive but will not be for long. Eight people, three of them children, are being crushed by the crowd pouring over them.
The omniscient voice seems almost dispassionate, adding to the story’s chilling effect, but it’s not without empathy. The moments in which Haddon zooms into the panicked minds of the survivors and witnesses are where the story shines. And while “The Pier Falls” doles out plenty of desperation and violence and descriptions of femurs poking through shins, it also contains glimmering vignettes of human bravery and endurance and heartbreaking empathy for human suffering.
On the eastern side of the pier a farmer from Bicester is trying to prise the six-year-old boy from between his parents. The boy can surely see that they are dead. Half his father’s head is missing. Or perhaps he can’t see this. He won’t let go of them and his grip is so tight that the man is afraid he will break the boy’s arm if he pulls any harder. He asks the boy what his name is but the boy won’t answer. The boy is in some private hell which he will never entirely leave. The farmer has no choice but to turn and swim, towing the three of them ashore.
It’s hard to pinpoint the most outstanding feature of “The Pier Falls.” It could be the elegance of Haddon’s swooping narration, or how he brings you nearly to tears (or, okay, maybe actually to tears) for nameless characters you’ve only known for the space of a paragraph. It could be the moment the paramedics carry out a body beneath a sheet and the beach crowd realizes the disaster they’re watching with entertainment has been fatal, or the chilling reality of how quickly the tragedy fades for those who didn’t live it, how soon the ruined pier returns to a mere part of the landscape. Or maybe it’s this small moment, the simple rescue of a dog:
The tattooed man comes running down the pier clasping the cocker spaniel to his chest and when he runs through the gate on to the promenade the two of them are greeted by cheers and whoops from a crowd eager to celebrate some small good thing.