Everything about THE SECRET LIFE OF THE PANDA is unique, beginning with a beautifully designed cover of illustrations of all manner of the animal kingdom with even the slightest mention of the name of the book or the author. This is a collection of short stories written by Nick Jackson, a gifted observer and imaginative spinner of tales whose work in literature has been somewhat overshadowed by his work as a librarian and a teacher in places as Belize and in a secure psychiatric unit. And perhaps it is his relative isolation that has allowed him to dodge publicity and concentrate instead on the strange ideas that have become the fodder for this enormously rewarding collection of stories.
The fourteen stories presented in this volume vary from very short to extended: each story is a gem deserving reading and re-reading to capture all of the occult flavor hidden between the pages. Some of the tales are reflective; in 'Spadework' the narrator while trying to unearth the buried portion of a broken gatepost recalls a time when as a child was stuck in a hold in the middle of a deserted field, completely dependent on the goodwill of his little brother to bring help to dig him out and that circles round to his present situation as he considers the original hole digger of the pole with which he is struggling - a man who has since committed suicide. 'Cut Short' is a reverie by a young lad waiting for a haircut who notices the photograph of a dolphin and ponders the loss of dolphins in the Yangtze River in China and quasi-related streams of consciousness while having his hair cut. 'Anton's Discovery' shares the conundrum of what to do when a small boy picks up a bird, crushes it with his hands, and then is faced with how to cope with his deed, physically and psychologically. The title story 'The Secret Life of the Panda' is more a reverie on the tones of the color white and how that stimulates marital discord and a convoluted visit to a bank. 'The Rope' takes the reader to a Caribbean region where the story of the rope is wound through the tale of snakes and oropendola birds. Et cetera.
Nick Jackson's fertile imagination is matched by his skill with the English language: writing about both mundane matter as well as fantasies made real seems so natural to him that the reader is left wondering why this shamanistic mind has not bloomed around the world - so many stories are here that suggest that his fount of inspiration is bottomless. He has perfected the art of short story writing (no mean feat): he makes us long for a novella or novel that would allow us to explore his talent even further. Grady Harp, December 11