I struggled with this book for months. At times, I was loathe to continue with it, and would put the book aside for weeks at a time. But I persisted, if only because I had read about 30 years ago another work of Joseph Conrad whose setting was the Dutch East Indies. And for me, Joseph Conrad (a Pole by birth who didn't learn English til late in life) held a certain fascination because of his previous life as a merchant seaman.
"THE HEART OF DARKNESS", which is set in the Belgian Congo at the time it was being cruelly exploited by King Leopold, reminded me in many respects of the movie 'Apocalypse Now' with the shady, mysterious character Kurtz the ivory trader bringing to mind Colonel Kurtz who abandoned civilization and his Army career to become fully assimilated into the ways of the hinterland. The overriding themes are of desolation, horror, fear, and exploitation. I felt in reading this story that it was the land itself that brought to the surface the greedy appetites of people from outside (i.e., Europe) who came to the land to both conquer and exploit the land and its indigenous peoples. Knowing that was enough to make me want to know how the story was played out.
My early encounters with Conrad left me ambivalent: I didn't get what all the fuss about The Heart of Darkness was for and I found The Secret Sharer moderately good but not thrilling.
I got this collection many years later as a way of trying to decide whether to bother with Conrad in a serious way and I found that the quality trended upward as the volume progresses - and since the stories are in chronological order of writing I suppose Conrad improved with practice. Over-all, I concluded I was sufficiently interested to try one of the novels.
The stories here almost all adopt Conrad's trademark framed narrative style, which seems to sometimes benefit the story and other times subtract from the immediacy of the telling without adding anything worthwhile. Again, mastery of this approach improved with time.
Genre is all over the place in this book (which is fun): we have Stephenson-esque Pacific tales, a Hardy-like pastoral romance, a reminiscent of Tolstoy story of Polish history and the sort of political-criminal-conspiracy thriller adopted by a zillion thriller writers. Never-the-less, they are all also eminently Conradian - and The Secret Sharer, upon re-reading, I find is actually really tense as well as an interesting moral poser.