Things You Should Know is, in a nutshell, unapologetic. Indeed, the author has become (in)famous for her rather stark depiction of the underbelly of society. Possibly best known for her 1996 novel The End of Alice, Homes has gone on to win various prizes since the publication of this particular collection in 2004, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013 for May We Be Forgiven.
The characters in Things You Should Know are apparently normal people, who go about their quotidian lives, but who are either confronted with or have some kind of mental disorder. They are, amongst others: A family in “The Chinese Lesson”, who are introduced as needy fools who “want more of something”, but who simultaneously go to great lengths to accommodate their home-sick mother-in-law; an inconspicuous lady in jogging attire from “Georgica”, who several people know because she miraculously survived an accident, and who spends her evenings trying to make herself pregnant from the sperm in condoms discarded by teenage couples she stalks; and a woman, in “The Weather Outside Is Sunny And Bright”, who has a gift for picking out the optimal place and way to start construction, and who occasionally turns into “a raccoon with orange webbed feet.”
Things You Should Know is, however, not simply a collection of caustic fantasy short stories. What supernatural elements there are might be classed as “magical realism”, and are used only in the second and penultimate stories. The uncanny, however, is an important factor in all of the stories. One could even say that the collection benefits a little too much from the shock value of certain tales. Suffice to say that the woman injecting herself with teenagers’ sperm she has found on the beach is neither the most shocking character, nor is that story the least tasteful. However, with the exception of one character in “The Whiz Kids”, all uncouth actions can be explained (if not condoned). While there are many scatological elements in the collection, it seldom gets out of hand, and is used primarily to underline how many psychological ailments are often preceded or reinforced by physical ones.
The importance of the human body is most apparent in “Do Not Disturb”, which describes how a female doctor shifts between despair and Gallows humour. On the one hand, she asks: “Why do anything when you have cancer?” On the other hand, when she is mistaken for a man because her hair has fallen out as a result of Chemotherapy, she dubs herself: ‘Cancer Man’. A more subtle focus on the human body is found in the fictional version of Nancy Reagan, who tries her best to stay in shape so she can properly nurse her husband. Even though she manages to maintain a facade of being in control, her aging body, and the continual stress of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient ultimately take their toll.
What makes the collection so intriguing is that the protagonists are all intrinsically unlikable. One should think the combination of disagreeable characters and equally disagreeable topics would be off-putting. To a certain extent it is: Things You Should Know is not recommended for people who are easily offended. Perhaps the most interesting question is how the title relates to the collection. It is very debatable whether one needs to know, for example, what the protagonist in “Georgica” does. The eponymous story offers a possible answer: “There is a list […] you make yourself. And at the top of the page you write, ‘Things You Should Know’”. What measure of import the reader may choose to apply to the collection is entirely subjective. However, the collection’s brutally honest description of human shortcomings may well prove cathartic.