These four short stories of tightly-woven psychological suspense don’t take so very long to read, but their dark echoes reverberate for days thereafter. The first story, a sinister study of the depths of obsession, gives the collection its title. The ‘Contended Man’ is anything but contended, and his unnatural fascination with a much younger dancer feels perfectly, horribly plausible. A typical mid-life crisis, an innocuous infatuation – they rapidly degenerate into something infinitely more menacing as a middle-class, professional ‘man next door’ gradually transforms into a single-minded stalker. Author Zoë Beck deftly ramps up the tension using subtle suggestion, with understated but chilling determination, until a catastrophic outcome is almost inevitable. This is powerful writing, given additional impact by the absence of hyperbole. It’s cool, calculated and very credible.
For ‘Rapunzel’ the scene moves to Albania in the 1930s where a blood vendetta has destroyed successive generations of two feuding families, their men wiped out in revenge killings. A young woman accepts her duty, to kill and then be killed in turn. Here, Beck uses an intimate situation to illustrate a sweeping theme with crystal clarity; the decline of age-old traditions, the coming of the modern world, and the long, slow haul towards something like gender equality.
‘Still Waters’ brings us back to the 21st century, to a haunting story of suicide… or was it murder? Where does responsibility for another person’s well-being begin and end? Again, Beck raises bigger questions by reminding us that Germany today still exists in the shadow of Germany’s yesterdays .
The final story steps sideways into the supernatural, slightly, when a malevolent Celtic spirit attaches itself to an unwilling host. This feels like a more lighthearted, almost whimsical tale than its companions… until you reach the bitter moment of revelation. Once again, Zoë Beck creates nested strata of varying significance – so each individual reader may experience a slightly different experience of each story.
These are sophisticated morality tales with powerful meanings stitched into their fibre. They’re beguiling and occasionally a little bewildering, so folks who prefer clear-cut and unambiguous endings may enjoy them less than I did.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
A Contented Man and other stories by Zoë Beck is available as an ebook at Amazon
Find THE CORRUPTION OF CHASTITY for £1.99 at Amazon