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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Heavy Water

Martin Amis

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To purchase Heavy Water

Title: Heavy Water
Author: Martin Amis
Genre: Stories
Written: 1976-97
Length: 208 pages
Availability: Heavy Water - US
Heavy Water - UK
Heavy Water - Canada
Eau lourde - France
Schweres Wasser - Deutschland
  • and Other Stories
  • Previously published in the magazines The New Yorker, Encounter, Granta, New Statesman, and Esquire.

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Our Assessment:

B- : Generally well-told, but fairly pointless.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B 29/9/1998 David Robson
Entertainment Weekly B 21/2/1999 Will Lee
FAZ . 21/3/2000 Walter Klier
The Guardian B 29/5/1999 Alex Clark
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 5/7/2000 Thomas David
New Criterion B- 3/1999 Brooke Allen
Newsweek C- 12/2/1999 Ted Gideonse
New Statesman B 25/9/1998 Natasha Walter
The NY Times B- 29/1/1999 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B 31/1/1999 A.O.Scott
Salon B+ 11/2/1999 Laura Miller
The Sunday Times A 27/9/1998 Michael Dibdin
The Sunday Times B- 13/6/1999 Trevor Lewis
Time B+ 8/2/1999 R.Z.Sheppard
The Times B+ 24/9/1998 Russell Celyn Jones
TLS . 25/9/1998 Tom Shone
Virginia Q. Rev. B- Summer/1999 .
The Washington Post B+ 14/2/1999 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Little consensus. The early stories (from the 1970's) are fairly consistently reviled, but every one of the others receives both praise and disparagement. The writing is consistently admired, the story premises considered fairly disappointing.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The best and the worst of Martin Amis in a single volume (.....) It makes for a heaving roller-coaster of a ride." - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "Think of Heavy Water as the Martin Amis Snack Pack--a variety of piquant flavors and chewy, juicy bits, but not enough of any single taste to provide long-lasting satisfaction." - Will Lee, Entertainment Weekly

  • "It's hard to ignore the feeling that Amis is not writing at his best, but his talent for comic invention is undimmed." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "Ironischerweise sind es aber eben die weniger grossspurig daherkommenden Erzählungen in diesem Band, die bleibenden Eindruck machen und ihren Verfasser jenseits aller karikierenden Überzeichnung als reifen Autor ausweisen. In ihnen verschafft sich eine Menschlichkeit Gehör, deren Stimme man unter dem pointierten Oberflächenwitz von Amis' lauteren Stories nur selten vernimmt und welche den Figuren charakterliches Gewicht verleiht." - Thomas David, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Heavy Water consists of nine stories, two of which appear here for the first time. As a group they are standard or substandard, and offer no surprises for readers familiar with Amisís fiction." - Brooke Allen, New Criterion

  • "(T)he volume is basically a case of a skilled writer lazily using his sleight of hand to toss off what (with two or three exceptions) are pure exercises in craft." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The prose is jam-packed with displays of virtuosity. (...) the book is tremendous fun to read." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Not all these miniatures work (some are badly dated, others are over-inflated), yet the volume provides a useful touchstone to the stylistic vagaries and vicissitudes of the man who has become the dystopian voice of our distempered times." - Trevor Lewis, The Sunday Times

  • "This new collection of short stories is the best thing he has done for some time." - Michael Dibdin, The Sunday Times

  • "Not for the starchy or easily offended, these exercises in absurdity showcase Amis' extravagant talents and splashy intellect. But we must also say that a little Heavy Water goes a long way." - R.Z.Sheppard, Time

  • "Heavy Water and Other Stories is highly inventive, inimitably stylish and funny, exhibiting a wider voice range than in anything he has done so far." - Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

  • "As this collection demonstrates, Amis's own sentences could not be more different: whipping through the gearbox with seamless ease. Amis has famously said that his ambition is to write the sort of sentences that no other guy could write. The same thing applies to his work as applies to that of every other guy; when he is writing well, his sentences appear to have written themselves." - Tom Shone, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Amis fans will love it, but the rest of us aren't likely to be converted." - Virginia Quarterly Review

  • "Funny, sexy, disturbing, tantalizing, sharply satirical, even wistful -- Amis's prose is the reason to read Heavy Water. That may not seem like much, but if you try one of these stories you'll find that it's more than enough." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Short fiction would seem an area where writers can experiment and try out subjects and forms that they could not perhaps devote a whole novel to. Heavy Water contains some stories whose premises sound particularly promising. A world in which poets earn the megabucks, pursued by agents and producers, and screenwriters struggle to get by. A world in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality an aberration. Perfect ! one is tempted to exclaim.
       Martin Amis is generally a very fine writer indeed. Certainly, he always manages bits which are perfect. Short fiction, however, does not appear to be his forte.
       Though certainly readable, by and large, we were fairly disappointed by this collection. Admittedly, we're not fans of short fiction, but still we expected more.
       The two promising ideas mentioned previously, though each with inspired sections, fall surprisingly flat. Certainly, their greatest failing is in setting up their premises. Amis never convinces us why poets could possibly be valued, and screenwriters ignored. Or why homosexuality should be prevalent and heterosexuality a condemned aberration. And without a proper foundation he really can not go far. Modestly entertaining, the pieces hardly rise beyond college lampoons.
       Two early stories from the 70's (Denton's Death and the updated title story) baffled us completely. There is no surprise to the particularly ugly Heavy Water, and the circularity of Denton's Death defeated us. The closing story, What happened to me on my Holiday, is rendered phonetically -- a strain on the reader that better offer a decent payout for the added effort. It doesn't.
       The other stories offer a bit more, and work better as stories, but none stand out. Let me count the ways is a moderately successful story of obsessive onanism -- an accomplishment of sorts, we suppose. Perhaps the most entertaining story is The Janitor on Mars in which Amis lets scientific jargon flow and shows up inferior humanity. It is ultimately just a tad too dark (a secondary story involves the goings on at what amounts to a pedophilic institute), and the science is not fully convincing (Amis can impress with the big words, but the concepts don't all fit together in a plausible picture), but Amis is good doing spite and venom, so it at least makes a decent bitter read.
       Amis writes fairly well throughout the collection -- he has already set the bar high for himself with his real fiction (the novels) -- and the collection is by and large fairly readable. There are a number of striking bits, a few marvelous sentences. It does not add up to enough. Heavy Water is, ultimately, not a necessary collection. Or particularly good.
       The money must be good in short fiction for name-brand authors such as Amis. No other obvious reason for wasting talents and time on the stuff occur to us. (And maybe he was particularly hard up in 1997, when the majority of these appeared.)
       Amis fans (like us) will want to take a peek, but it is difficult to get enthusiastic about these stories.

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Heavy Water: Reviews: Martin Amis: Other books by Martin Amis under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Martin Amis lived 1949 to 2023.

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© 1999-2023 the complete review

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