Monster's ball


By Albert Sanchez Pinol

Canongate, 240pp, 9.99

ONE DAY, IN THE YEARS following the end of the First World War, a cargo ship steams through the icy seas around the Antarctic and weighs anchor off a tiny, barren island. A young man, a weather observation official, disembarks and sets up his lonely home in a dilapidated cottage. The weather official he has been sent to replace is missing and a filthy, unstable man living in the nearby lighthouse is the only companion for his year-long stay.

The new weather official's first night on the island is the stuff of nightmares. Strange amphibian creatures with grey-green skin and blue blood besiege the cottage, trying to break in and devour him. The weather official manages to withstand the attack until the monsters disappear in the light of dawn as mysteriously as they arrived at dusk.

Fearing for his sanity, he tries to talk to Gruner, the man in the lighthouse, who rebuffs his overtures. Another two nights holding off the vicious attacks of the sea creatures and the weather official is exhausted. Gruner suddenly appears at the cottage and the two men decide on an accommodation: in return for the weather official's rifles and ammunition, Gruner will allow him to shelter from the monsters inside the lighthouse. The men form a grudging alliance to fight off the nightly attacks, shooting at their prey from the balcony at the top of the lighthouse. During the day the men sleep, replenish their supplies and reinforce their defences.

The weather official discovers that Gruner has a companion, a female sea monster, with whom he enjoys lengthy and noisy sex sessions during the day. The weather official is fascinated and disgusted by Gruner and the creature he refers to as "the mascot", who appears to live away from her kind by choice. But the weather official, to his horror, soon falls under the mascot's spell and finds himself engaged in brutal, deeply satisfying sex with the creature, who seems to enjoy it as much as he does.

As the men's ammunition runs out the sea creatures attack with mounting ferocity. Their death at the hands of the monsters seems inevitable and the men use increasingly desperate means to survive. Meanwhile the mascot sings her strange songs, heralding yet another onslaught, seemingly impervious to the carnage around her.

Pinol may be a native of Barcelona but he understands the extremes of winter weather as well as anyone born in colder climes. He also understands the coldness that can envelop the soul, driving men to extreme behaviour in order to escape their mental torment.

This is a beguiling novel that explores the darker reaches of the survival instinct. The nightmarish quality is never overdone and the growing bond between the weather official and his attackers lends the book a rewarding complexity. At times touching, at times vicious, Pinol's dark tale lingers long after the shivers running down the spine have ceased.