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Two Short Story Collections: George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill

Today, I have put together two reviews of short story collections which I was expecting to love, but which both somewhat disappointed me.

4157xu1loml._sx324_bo1204203200_Tenth of December by George Saunders **
I had yet to read any of George Saunders’ work before picking up his much-lauded short story collection, Tenth of December.  The author won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which, on reflection, perhaps would have been a better place to start with his work.

I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of Saunders’ prose in this collection.  The stories often go off at tangents, and I did not feel as though the different disjointed threads always came together in the end.  The stories here are certainly varied – there are forays into science-fiction, and some writing which verges on the experimental, for instance – but I did not find that a single tale stood out for me as a reader.  Some of the storylines themselves intrigued me, but others ended too abruptly.  The story ‘Sticks’ only covers two pages, and was the tale which I could see the most potential in.

I felt pulled in by very few of the stories in Tenth of December.  I ended up reading the first four pages or so of the tales, and if they had not captured my attention, I moved on.  I was expecting to find moments of brilliance in this collection, but was unable to.  So many people have loved these short stories, so perhaps I’m missing something, but throughout I found so little to connect with.  I’m now unsure whether to read Lincoln in the Bardo based on my experience of this collection.

Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill ** 91j2b2bsthmbl
Mary Gaitskill’s short story collection, Don’t Cry, was first published in the USA in 2009, and in the United Kingdom in 2017.  Gaitskill was not an author whom I had read before, but I’d heard such great things about her writing, and consequently picked up Don’t Cry when browsing in my local library.

Described as ‘full of jagged, lived emotion and powerful, incisive writing’, I was certainly intrigued by this collection, which is made up of ten stories.  Gaitskill’s opening sentences are often quite startling and unusual, and sometimes packed a real punch.  ‘College Town, 1980’, for instance, begins: ‘Dolores did not look good in a scarf’; and ‘Mirror Bowl’ opens ‘He took her soul – though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think about it that way’.  They also provide a sense of intrigue. ‘Don’t Cry’, the title story, has ‘Our first day in Addis Ababa, we woke up to wedding music playing outside our hotel’ as its first sentence.

I admired Gaitskill’s skill at creating striking sentences and images, but found that there was perhaps a little too much sexual content, darkness, and grit in Don’t Cry for my personal taste.  I found a few of the stories grotesque, and quite difficult to read in consequence.  Whilst Gaitskill’s stories are largely about everyday occurrences, she twists them around until they seem nasty and unsettling.  Only some of her characters interested me, and I wasn’t that taken by her quite matter-of-fact writing.  The title story in the collection was by far my favourite, but it has not led me to want to pick up any more of Gaitskill’s work in future.

Have you read either of these collections?  Are there any authors whose short stories you would particularly recommend to me?

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One From the Archive: ‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

First published in September 2018.

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

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‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ by Mariana Enriquez ****

Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez’ debut English language collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, had been on my radar for a while before I found a copy in my local library.  It sounded wonderfully creepy and unsettling; the Financial Times writes that it is ‘full of claustrophobic terror’, and Dave Eggers says that it ‘hits with the force of a freight train’.  The Irish Times goes further, proclaiming that this is the only book which has caused their reviewer to be ‘afraid to turn out the lights’.  I cautiously began it in broad daylight, but was surprisingly brave enough to read a couple of these stories just before bedtime.

9781846276361-ukThe twelve stories collected in Things We Lost in the Fire are of ‘ghosts, demons and wild women; of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls’.  They are almost entirely set in the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, described in the book’s blurb as a series of ‘crime-ridden streets of [a] post-dictatorship’.  Here, ‘exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.’

Each of the stories here is highly evocative; they feel like sharp scratches, or aching punches to the stomach in the power which they wield.  The historical context which fills each one is thoroughly and sensually explained and explored.  In ‘The Intoxicated Years’, for example, the section of the story which is set in 1989, begins: ‘All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn’t really understand what that meant…  What would a widespread blackout be like?  Would we be left in the dark forever?  The possibility was incredible.  Stupid.  Ridiculous.  Useless adults, we thought, how useless.’  In 1992, the three young protagonists in this story make a new acquaintance.  The narrator explains: ‘Roxana never had food in the house; her empty cupboards were crisscrossed by bugs dying of hunger as they searched for nonexistent crumbs, and her fridge kept one Coca-Cola and some eggs cold.  The lack of food was good; we had promised each other to eat as little as possible.  We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls.’

In Things We Lost in the Fire, Enriquez explores the darker sides of life in Buenos Aires: drug abuse, hallucinations, homelessness, murder, illegal abortion, disability, suicide, and disappearance, to name but a few.  Each story is unsettling, but the collection is incredibly readable.  I found myself drawn to Enriquez’ descriptions.  She writes, amongst many others, the following striking phrases: ‘beside the pool where the water under the siesta sun looked silvered, as if made of wrapping paper’; a house, thought to be haunted, ‘buzzed; it buzzed like a hoarse mosquito’.

There are many chilling moments throughout.  In ‘Adela’s House’, the narrator relates: ‘I’ll never forget those afternoons.  When Adela talked, when she concentrated and her dark eyes burned, the house’s garden began to fill with shadows, and they ran, they waved to us mockingly.  When Adela sat with her back to the picture window, in the living room, I saw them dancing behind her.  I didn’t talk to her.  But Adela knew.’  In ‘An Invention of the Big-Eared Runt’, protagonist Pablo is working as a guide on a popular murder tour of Buenos Aires, when the ghost of a notorious child murderer appears to him.  Enriquez writes: ‘He studied the tour’s ten crimes in detail so he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never felt scared – they didn’t affect him at all.  That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror.  It was definitely him, no doubt about it.  He was unmistakable: the large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy.  The drab sweater on his short body, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims.’

Enriquez’ style feels very Gothic, both in terms of its style and the plots of some of the stories.  Her tales build wonderfully, and there is a real claustrophobia which descends in a lot of them.  ‘Spiderweb’, for instance, begins: ‘It’s hard to breathe in the humid north, up there so close to Brazil and Paraguay, the rushing river guarded by mosquito sentinels and a sky that can turn from limpid blue to stormy black in minutes.  You start to struggle right away when you arrive, as if a brutal arm were wound around your waist and squeezing.’

Megan McDowell’s translation from the original Spanish of the stories is faultless.  It does not feel as though anything of the original has been lost in translation; the stories have an urgency, an immediacy to them.   In her translator’s note at the end of the volume, McDowell writes that in these stories, ‘Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English-speaking world.’  She goes on to say: ‘But Enriquez’s literature conforms to no genre’.  She writes of the focus upon female characters, and the way in which, throughout this collection, ‘… we get a sense of the contingency and danger of occupying a female body, though these women are not victims.’

Things We Lost in the Fire is startling and entirely memorable.  The collection as a whole provides many creepy moments, a lot of which startled me as a reader, but I could not tear myself away from it.  The stories are at once desperate and disturbing.  I, like many other readers of English, I expect, eagerly await Enriquez’ next collection.

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Three Reviews: Donal Ryan, Penelope Lively, and Angela Huth

9780857525345From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan ****
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2018. The novel follows three men, and is focused on a small town in Ireland, in which all three characters find themselves.

Our first protagonist is a Syrian refugee named Farouk, who has to leave his home and his career in medicine, and ends up losing far more before he reaches the safety of Ireland. We then meet twenty three-year-old Laurence, known as Lampy, who has reached something of a crisis in his life. He dreamed of a career, but now works in a care home, a job which he feels he is barely qualified for, and is nursing a broken heart. The third main character is an Irishman named John, who is reflecting upon his life, and the awful things which he has done. His narrative is the only one told from the first person perspective, and it is written as a confession to a priest.

Throughout, I was so interested in each of the characters, and their motivations. The prose in the first section, which follows Farouk, is exquisite, rich and textured. The section which follows Lampy has more matter-of-fact prose, and John’s falls somewhere inbetween. Taken together, these three men show rather a diverse picture of what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century, and the trials and tribulations which we could all face, if the circumstances were different.

 

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively ***** 0241319625
Penelope Lively is an author whose work I always gravitate back to. I was enraptured when I picked up her novel, Consequences in a seconds bookshop some years ago, and absolutely loved the reading experience.  I have read quite a few of her novels since, as well as her excellent memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, which focuses upon her childhood spent living in Egypt.

Although I do not have my own garden at present, gardening is an enduring love of mine.  I was therefore most excited to find Lively’s Life in the Garden on my library’s online borrowing service, and it proved to be just what I was in the mood for.  It is partly memoir of her own gardening escapades, and draws together a lot of other writers and their real and fictional gardens.

Lively’s exploration of gardens is very thorough, and she writes about so many different books which feature them.  She discusses at length the gardens of authors like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, as well as the gardens which she herself has tended during her life.

Lively writes wonderfully, and I wished that this book had been twice as long so that I had a lot more time to savour her words.  Life in the Garden is a tender, lovely, and gentle read; just the thing to relax with in this busy world of ours.  I was pulled in immediately, and can only hope that Lively writes another tome like this one in the near future.

 

s-l640Collected Stories by Angela Huth ****
When I visit my local library, I’m like a magpie, borrowing anything which I fancy, even if I’ve not heard of it before.  I have decided to try and be more comprehensive about going through the many to-read notebooks which I have kept since I was a teenager, deliberately selecting tomes from them to read.  I therefore came across a collection of Angela Huth’s short stories, which I had written down about ten years ago, and decided to try them out.  I requested her Collected Stories through my local library, and the book was sent to me from the Country Store, where I believe it had been languishing for some years (the last date stamp reads 2007).

I had not read any of Huth’s work before picking up her Collected Stories, and must admit that I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I do not recall ever seeing her work reviewed, and I do not remember where I found the recommendation.  Regardless, I settled down with the book during a storm, and read a huge chunk of it all in one go.

From the first couple of stories, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would like Huth’s work; they seemed a little bitty and incomplete.  However, once I reached the fourth and fifth tales, I was hooked.  Some of the better stories are found towards the back of the collection.

Huth’s tales are well written – sometimes beautifully so – and very easy to read.  Huth’s work feels quite old-fashioned on the whole, and these were lovely to settle down with; I was reminded at points of work by Carol Shields and Penelope Lively.   I feel as though her style really suits this short form, and I’m currently unsure as to whether I will read any of her longer work at any time soon.

Collected Stories only had 8 ratings on Goodreads before I added my review, and I feel that it – and, too, Huth as an author – has been quite unfairly overlooked.  There is so much here to admire; the characters have depth and realness to them, and the situations in which they find themselves, whilst generally quite commonplace, are rendered memorable due to the reactions which Huth relates.

The focus upon female characters, particularly those in their middle- or old-age, made the whole feel cohesive.  There are commonalities threaded throughout Collected Stories, but each story is different enough to read one after the other.  I would highly recommend this collection, and believe that ‘Laughter in the Willows’, one of the later stories, is something akin to a masterpiece.

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Three Spotlight Books: ‘Cora Vincent’, ‘Crumbs’, and ‘The Haunting of Strawberry Water’

Spotlight Books have recently published a series of six attractive short volumes, three of them poetry collections, and three of which consist of a single story.  It is the latter – Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud, Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić, and The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould – which I am reviewing.  I have chosen to collect my thoughts on these stories together in one review, as I imagine that readers interested in one will want to collect them all.  In these volumes, Spotlight, which is a collaboration between Creative Future, Myriad Editions, and New Writing South, has essentially brought six different underrepresented voices to the fore.

 

Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud **** 9781912408443

Cora Vincent is essentially a character study, in which a ‘derailed actress’ living in Hove is offered a break, quite by chance, with a role in a West End theatre.  This offers her the opportunity to leave her past behind. The story is, says its blurb, ‘set in a country split by politics and disjointed through lives that are increasingly isolated and lonely’.  Indeed, the tale is set amongst the turmoil of Brexit, and examines – although not always in the greatest of detail, given the story’s length – the things which divide us.

Aboud is an award-winning short story writer, whose work, whilst underrepresented, garners a lot of praise.  Cathy Galvin calls Cora Vincent ‘startling and considered’, and notes Aboud as an ‘important new voice’ in literature.  Other reviewers of the story concur.  Susannah Waters writes that ‘very few people put words together on the page as beautifully as this’, and Tom Lee that ‘Georgina Aboud has a voice and vision all her own’.

Cora Vincent opens vividly, on the advent of a new year: ‘Ten.  Nine.  Eight.  The old pier stands undressed, but defiant still, and there’s a boy in fingerless gloves who does a cartwheel, and a girl with a face punctured by piercings and a glittering in her eyes…  And the dog wears one of those jackets that I hope stops her being scared, and I have a whisky tang on my tongue and a brine wash through my hair…’.

We are catapulted into Cora’s narrative, and soon understand quite how aware she is of her own physicality, and the space which she takes up in the world.  She goes on to say: ‘Peel back my skin though, and the truth idles everywhere: in glistening leg muscles and shoulder blades that could, if I say so myself, belong in an anatomy textbook.  There’s a truth in my never-inhabited uterus.  In my fists.  In a jagged crack that runs across my forearm, in a missing tooth lost at a disco, and a lost appendix, dug out from the abyss.’

We move back and forth from 2019 to pivotal moments in Cora’s life.  In her present day, she is taking up the first theatre role which she has been given in years; she says that she owes her newfound job to her ‘totally fudged’ CV.  When she receives the phonecall to say that another actor has broken her arm, and could she stand in, Cora feels ‘a prickle of something, maybe hope, growing inside me.’

Aboud’s prose is both richly layered and easy to read.  Her descriptions feel original; on Cora’s first day of rehearsal, for instance, Aboud writes: ‘And we stand in this thin-skinned room, with tooth-coloured walls, making childlike sounds, and the strip lighting buzzes with homecoming.’  I found parts of Aboud’s writing startling: ‘Fancying someone feels like ulcers, of being trapped in a falling lift.  It’s an acceleration where nerves eat each other and hearts are held in teeth.’

Cora Vincent feels very thoroughly done, and encompasses what feels like a highly realistic protagonist.  There is a lot of consideration which has been given to both plot and protagonist, and Aboud writes believably of how and why Cora has turned out the way she is.  There are thoughtful passages, and a lot of focus upon a past relationship which Cora had with a man named Kit: ‘We are tethered to each other by weighted strings that are snipped and hastily re-tied back together and snipped again, by one or both of us’.  The non-chronological structure, and the way in which Aboud flits back and forth in time, worked really well here.  Cora Vincent is a really satisfying story, and I very much look forward to reading more of Aboud’s work in future.

 

9781912408405Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić **

I must admit that Ana Tewson-Božić’s Crumbs did not sound appealing to me as a reader, as I tend to avoid everything science-fiction.  However, I was keen to read all of the Spotlight stories, in part to see how they differ.  The protagonist of this short story is a teenage girl named Julja, whose ‘games take a serious turn as she becomes inducted into a computer cult.  The surge of dopamine in her brain connects her with psychic aliens and chemical conspiracies, sordid and secret.’

On the whole, the plot sounded strange to me, but I did admire the way in which the author uses it as a frame to explore psychosis. Tewson-Božić herself has spent ‘significant time in mental institutions’, and has been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder.  She explores the darker side of mental health, says reviewer John O’Donoghue, ‘in a kind of distressed, demented prose which from time to time lets in shafts of reality…’.

Tewson-Božić’s writing, indeed, is strange, and quite beguiling.  At the outset of the story, she writes: ‘In this place, I see heaven.  I am buoyed by the souls of the relatives in their homes around me, buoyed by the fact that they’d known and liked me.  With these powers, I see fragile bodies rise through a church steeple and crumble into ash against the ceiling.  I see great alien eyes and tongues of steely poison poised to greet us at our deaths.  They see me back and I never felt so much terror.’

Throughout Crumbs, the prose follows a similar structure, and I found that a lot of elements of the story – as well as the plot as a whole – made little sense.  There is barely any cohesion within it, and at points I had no idea what was happening.  This may be a good representation of what one feels when suffering with psychosis, but it alienated me as a reader.

Crumbs has been split into very short sections.  As I have mentioned above, these are rather abstract.  Tewson-Božić certainly plays on different literary forms throughout her story, but these are not tied together at all.  Part of the story is narrated from a bed on a psychiatric ward; other sections seem to deal with Julja’s absorption into the cult: ‘At some point the sleep deprivation and the journey into a world beyond my means, blew out my brains and I was taken.’

I am sure that Crumbs will find its audience, but for me the story felt a little too fragmented to make any sense.  When the story moves from Earth into space, I was lost completely.  At no point did I feel connected to the story, or to its protagonist.  Whilst some of the prose did intrigue me – for instance, ‘I woke up standing in the middle of the park clutching a Jack of Hearts with an eye scrawled on it in marker.  I was looking at the stars and spinning.’ – these sections ended abruptly, were not elaborated upon, and I was still left none the wiser.  Crumbs is well written, but the plot felt chaotic at times.  I suppose that Tewson-Božić’s story could be seen as illuminating in its way, providing a window into mental illness, but I would have preferred something a little more cohesive and connected.

 

The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould **** 9781912408504

In The Haunting of Strawberry Water, short story writer and playwright Tara Gould focuses upon a new mother ‘in the throes of post-natal depression’.  The protagonist’s pregnancy has thrown up past turmoil, in which she is trying to understand why she herself was abandoned as a baby ‘by the mother she never knew’.  Gould’s story sounded wonderfully mysterious; it is set in a 1920s bungalow in the countryside, in which ‘supernatural forces begin to take hold in this gripping and heartrending tale of the uncanny.’

The Haunting of Strawberry Water has been well reviewed, and the following comments made the story appeal to me even more.  Jeff Noon believes that ‘Tara Gould knows an essential truth, that ghosts exist in the darkness of the mind.  And that sometimes those ghosts can exit the mind and take up residence in the world…’.  Hannah Vincent notes Gould’s ‘elegant and profound’ story, which she sees as much of a piece of nature writing as ‘a compelling ghost story, and an expertly handled meditation on the prickly nature of intimate relationships.’

The unnamed narrator’s childhood bungalow home is named Strawberry Water, after a phenomenon which occurs in certain weathers ‘in late spring and summer’ to the river which runs along the bottom of the garden.  In an odd twist of fate, the house comes up for sale, and she and her husband decide to move there from their cramped city apartment with their baby daughter, Freya.  This throws up a lot of memories for the narrator.  When they first move there, she relates the following: ‘In the woods on the other side of the river, I looked at the grey collection of shapes between the black silhouettes of the trees and I thought I saw a dark form flitting chaotically between them.  No doubt a fox or a deer, but it sent an unpleasant shiver through me.’

The story opens with the single Polaroid picture which the narrator has of her mother: ‘All that’s visible is a section of leg where the knee pushes forward, the point of a black, shiny shoe protruding at the base of the wooden door, and three slim fingers clutching the door half way up.  The rest is simply the vague impression of the form and presence of a person.’  She has never seen her mother’s face, even in a photograph.  As a child, she touchingly collects pebbles from the river, which ‘represented a piece of information about my mother that I’d gleaned over the years.’  She goes on to say: ‘I needed desperately to believe that she was decent.  She had left her husband and her baby daughter, but perhaps she had secret reasons.’

We are led from the narrator’s motherless childhood into the more stable period of her twenties, in which she married and fell pregnant: ‘During the whole of my pregnancy,’ she tells us, ‘I was unquestioningly happy – a deep contentment I had never before experienced…  I felt connected.  I felt… never alone.’  After a difficult birth, in which she states ‘nature revealed her true unmodified self to me’, she visualises herself as follows: ‘… I saw myself putting on a bathrobe and slippers and escaping out of that window, and down the fire escape and away from my baby and the impossible job of being a perfect mother.’

Gould successfully uses a series of short vignettes to weave the story together.  The narrative is interconnected, as one vignette leads into the next.  Gould’s prose is beautiful, and her story feels like such an honest one, as she relates the everyday struggles of motherhood.  Once the more sinister elements start to creep into the narrative – strange noises heard around the house, the baby being unable to settle – I was absolutely invested in the story.  By this point, I felt as though I really knew what moved and motivated the bewildered protagonist, and the fear she had surrounding her baby.  The inclusion of herself being motherless added an interesting element to the story, and I felt as though it was well explored by Gould.

The Haunting of Strawberry Water is a highly successful short story, which does and says a lot.  It is an enjoyable piece of prose, which is beguiling from start to finish; I only wish it had been longer.

 

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Three Disappointing Books: John Wyndham, Belinda Bauer, and Samanta Schweblin

Today I bring together three reviews of books which I expected to enjoy, but which I found disappointing.

 

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham ** 9780141032993
I have read and enjoyed several of John Wyndham’s books to date, despite the fact that his plots and science-fiction focus are not part of my usual reading fare. I found the storyline of The Kraken Wakes intriguing, and was expecting that I would be pulled into the story quite quickly.

However, this novel feels like a real anomaly in Wyndham’s oeuvre. It took too long to get going, and I did not connect at all to the story. The narrative voice was relatively dull, although it is perhaps fitting that it mimics the style of an article of sorts throughout, given protagonist Mike’s profession as a journalist. The plot is meandering, and the writing stodgy.

Had The Kraken Wakes been the first book of Wyndham’s which I had picked up, I doubt that I would have sought out any more of his work. I got halfway through the novel, before acknowledging that any interest that I had in it had completely disappeared. I expected The Kraken Wakes to be engaging and thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the current climate crisis which the world is facing, but I feel as though a real opportunity has been missed here.

 

9781784164034Snap by Belinda Bauer ***
I purchased Belinda Bauer’s Snap on a whim whilst browsing in a local Oxfam store. It has received a lot of hype – and quite a bit of criticism, too – for being long listed for the Man Booker Prize last year.

Snap was not quite what I was expecting, if I’m honest. I found it an easy, quick read, and it did not always feel as though there was enough substance in some of its chapters. The writing was rather matter-of-fact – perhaps too much for my personal taste – although it does fit with the general style of thrillers.

The different threads of the story caught my interest enough that I read to the end, but I did not feel as though the mystery element was strong enough. I’m unsure whether the novel disappointed me, as I came to it with a few reservations, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t pick up another of Bauer’s books at some point in future.

 

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin ** 51jifqcd9ml
I really enjoyed Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream, her first book to be translated to English from its original Spanish.  I was therefore keen to get my hands on her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, a copy of which I found in the library.  These tales have been translated by Megan McDowell.

Publishers Weekly calls Mouthful of Birds ‘canny, provocative and profoundly unsettling’, and the Library Journal deems it ‘surreal, disturbing and decidedly original’.  I felt as though I knew, therefore, what the collection would hold.

The twenty stories here are incredibly strange, on the whole.  The first story, ‘Headlights’, is about new brides abandoned by their husbands by the roadside; the narrator of ‘The Test’ is tasked with killing a dog (I was unable to read this gory story in full); in ‘Olingiris’, six girls have to pull out every single hair on a woman’s body, only using tweezers.  The premises are odd, and a lot of the imagery caused me to feel queasy, rather than in awe of the author’s imagination.

There is little emotion to be found within these stories, and I felt rather detached from them.  I imagined that Mouthful of Birds would be highly immersive and unsettling, as Fever Dream was, but most of it simply did not sit right for me as a reader.  The writing is largely matter-of-fact, and I found it impossible to connect with any of Schweblin’s characters.  Whilst I might pick up a longer work of the author’s, and perhaps another novella, I am certain that her short stories do not work for me.  The characters and scenarios were flat, and I was unable to suspend my disbelief.

2

‘Things We Say in the Dark’ by Kirsty Logan ****

I am a big fan of Kirsty Logan’s prose; I love its mysterious quality, its beautifully dark and evocative imagery, and the wildness which exists within it.  I was so looking forward to picking up her newest collection of short stories, Things We Say in the Dark, and am pleased to say that it lived up to my very high expectations.

819ouwhj2b4lLogan has been compared, variously, to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Jeanette Winterson.  I can see elements of their work echoed in hers, but Logan has something entirely her own.  Her narrative voice is taut, and her stories often feel wholly original.

The stories in Things We Say in the Dark are described as ranging from ‘chilling contemporary fairytales to disturbing contemporary fiction.’  The premise behind the collection is to examine fears.  The blurb comments: ‘Some things can’t be spoken about in the light of day.  But we can visit our fears at night, in the dark.  We can turn them over and weigh them in our hands and maybe that will protect us from them.  But maybe not.’  For Logan, the expansive night allows a kind of freedom difficult to hold onto during the daylight, but it also serves to make the more creepy elements stand out.  Logan has used quite typical tropes at times – abandoned buildings, a séance – but rather than becoming clichés, she makes them all her own.

Things We Say in the Dark has been split into three parts: ‘The House’, ‘The Child’, and ‘The Past’.  Each of the tales contained within the sections revolve around the central subject, but each is, on the whole, really quite different.  Before each, Logan has added a sort of continual narrative, which builds to a story of its own.

As is often the case in Logan’s fiction, there is such strange and compelling imagery threaded throughout the collection.  In ‘Last One to Leave Please Turn Off the Lights’, the narrator makes tiny houses out of parts of their body: ‘My ear-house got buried in the window box; my eye-house was squashed under your winter boots; my tongue-house was snatched by a neighbourhood fox.’  Mythology and fairytale-like imagery make themselves felt at times; at others, magical realism creeps in.  Logan makes the weirdest things feel entirely realistic; it is a real skill of hers.

Logan makes a series of profound observations in several of these stories, too.  In ‘Last One to Leave Please Turn Off the Lights’, for example, she writes: ‘When she thought of what she – and probably you – had learned at school, about the universe and its vastness, the infinity of it, the insignificant tininess of her within it, it made her sick and cold and dizzy.’  There is humour – most of it dark – here too.  In ‘My House is Out Where the Light Ends’, protagonist Jay ‘opens the door to the cellar, but she doesn’t go down the steps because she’s not a fucking moron.’

Logan excels at both short fiction and longer work.  This collection of dark tales is wholly immersive.  It looks, largely, at the lives of women and those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and in their entirety ‘speak to one another about female bodies, domestic claustrophobia, desire and violence.’  Things We Say in the Dark is filled to the brim with original ideas.  Each of Logan’s stories is unsettling; some are downright creepy.  They and sent quite delicious shivers down my own spine, and would be a chilling choice to read aloud.  Things We Say in the Dark is such a beguiling collection, and another excellent book in Logan’s canon.

1

Two Collections: ‘Heads of the Colored People’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’

My local library is a wonderful place to browse, and on one trip there earlier this year, I came across two short story collections which I had heard a lot of.  Both Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? explore black segregation, identity, and experience in the United States.

36562557._sy475_Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires ****

Published in 2018, Heads of the Colored People is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection.  Reviews on the colourful hardback edition which I read call it, variously, ‘fresh-laundry-clean’, ‘superbly witty’, ‘wholly original’, and ‘one of the best short story debuts I’ve read in my whole life.’  I was therefore, understandably, looking forward to discovering Thompson-Spires’ work for myself.

In Heads of the Colored People, the author ‘interrogates our supposedly post-racial era.  To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.’  Her collection of twelve stories, which comes in at just under 200 pages, ‘shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic’, and ‘marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.’

A lot of the stories within Thompson-Spires’ collection are immersed in popular culture, much of which, I must admit, went straight over my head.  She takes different approaches throughout the stories.  The title story, for instance, is made up of different interlinking character portraits.  Another, ‘Belles Lettres’, is told entirely using correspondence between two warring mothers, and is laugh-aloud funny.  There is a consistency to Heads of the Colored People, but the use of different formats and perspectives which Thompson-Spires has employed makes it more interesting.  There are recurring characters who appear throughout the collection, something which I personally enjoy.

Thompson-Spires’ writing is sharp and memorable.  Her characters are clear, and all have a depth to them.  She focuses upon all sorts of topics and issues: the obsession with social media, ‘fitting in’, trolling, bullying, race, police violence, rivalry, alternative lifestyles…  In ‘The Subject of Consumption’, for example, protagonist Lisbeth has become a ‘fruitarian’ after having tried a variety of different diets.  She makes her husband and daughter join her: ‘The groceries became more expensive and the lifestyle more time-consuming the closer they tried to get to earth, to original man, to whatever…’.  She also practices what she calls ‘detachment parenting’, largely leaving her young daughter to get on with it alone.

I felt absorbed by every single story in Heads of the Colored People, and appreciated the numerous flaws which each character had been given.  Thompson-Spires is incredibly perceptive, and each of her stories packs a punch.  Some build to a crescendo; others open in arresting ways.  ‘Suicide Watch’, as an example, has this as its opening sentence: ‘Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light.’

Ultimately, in Heads of the Colored People, Thompson-Spires examines what it means to be, for want of a better word, different.  I appreciated the dark humour which she uses, and the unexpected twists which come.  There is certainly a freshness to her writing, and whilst not a favourite collection of mine, I can imagine that I will return to it in future.  Heads of the Colored People has a lot to say, and Thompson-Spires does this well.  Her authorial voice is commanding and authoritative, particularly considering that this collection is a debut.  I very much look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

 

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins ***

Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is set in New York during the 51rythrc7gl._sx334_bo1204203200_summer of 1963, a city ‘full of lovers and dreamers’.  This was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States.  Collins’ stories take place ‘on university campuses and in run-down Manhattan apartments’, where ‘young women grow out their hair and discover the taste of new freedoms, praying for a world where love is colour-free.’

The edition which I read included a foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, who writes of the years which it took to track down Collins’ film, ‘Losing Ground’, and the great effect which it had upon her.  When Alexander found that Collins had also written short stories, and was able to ‘encounter with a start her singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives – is akin to discovering a treasure trove.’

Collins never saw her work published; it wasn’t until almost three decades after her death that her stories were collected together by her daughter in this collection.  They were all originally written during the 1960s.  A lot of the issues which she deals with are as important today as they were then; perhaps, most pivotally, depression, poverty, and issues of race which still sadly prevail in modern society.

The first story, ‘Interiors’, is a duologue; we first hear from a husband, and then a wife. This is an incredibly insightful work, where both characters address one another, and, in the process, lay themselves bare.  The husband comments: ‘I’m moody, damn it, and restless… and life has so many tuneless days…  I can’t apologize for loving you so little.’  In this manner, Collins’ writing is striking, and revealing.  ‘How Does One Say’ begins: ‘When she left home for the summer her hair was so short her father wouldn’t say good-bye.  He couldn’t bear to look at her.  She had it cut so short there wasn’t any use straightening it, so it frizzed tight around her head and made her look, in her father’s words, “just like any other colored girl”.’

Each of the stories in this collection is beautifully considered, and Collins’ characters are deftly introduced, with all of their feelings, their foibles, their flaws.  We do not often learn their names, but they feel wholly realistic.  I found Collins’ prose evocative, and quite sensual in places.  ‘Treatment for a Story’, for example, opens as follows: ‘A ground-floor room in the back, cluttered with trunks, boxes, books, magazines, newspapers, notebooks, and paintings, and smelling of Gauloises, burnt coffee, dirty sheets, couscous and peppers, and a mélange of female scents.’  Other stories contain descriptive writing in this vein, which wonderfully sets the scene.

Oddly, then, the sixteen short stories were not quite as memorable as I had hoped.  There were a few stories which did not capture my attention at all.  From the outset, I imagined that Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? would be a four-star read for me, but from around the halfway point, this had changed to more like a three.  The collection was not quite consistent enough for my taste, although I can see why people love Collins’ prose, and admire her stories.

4

‘The Cat and the City’ by Nick Bradley

Nick Bradley’s debut novel is a collection of intertwined stories that take place in Tokyo, this fascinating, terrifying, overpopulated and lonely city. Although the stories initially seem separate from one another, the reader will quickly recognise the recurring characters and realise that they are all connected in one way or another. And, of course, there is a calico cat that makes an appearance in every single one of these stories, leaving its mark in the lives of all these struggling characters. 41zU1ZzTcRL.SX316.SY316

Japanese literature is known for its frequent fascination with cats, and Bradley, having himself lived and worked in Japan, attempted to weave a story of this complicated city where anything and everything seems possible. Instead of an ode to Tokyo and Japan in general, Bradley often seems to view certain events and practices with a critical eye, which is quite refreshing, since most foreigners who write about Japan tend to over-romanticise the country and everything they have experienced whilst there.

I also enjoyed Bradley’s prose and writing style a lot. While I started this book with a certain level of caution and apprehension, I was quickly drawn into the author’s words and found myself reading one story after another, curious to discover which character we are going to follow next and what kind of role the calico cat will play in the story. I also loved how Bradley’s writing seemed to change and shift according to the needs of the story, while some stories surpassed the boundaries of conventional prose as they were enriched with pages of a manga comic one of the characters was writing, the case notes of a detective, etc.

Although my experience reading The Cat and the City is mostly positive, there were a couple of things that I had an issue with. Firstly, there were a number of words that were purposely left in Japanese throughout the text (but especially in the first few stories), although there was no need to. I understand that since the stories are set in Japan and most of the characters are Japanese it seems more natural for them to use certain Japanese words, but when there is an English equivalent (which was often used right after the Japanese word anyway), it seems rather redundant to me to use the Japanese word. Also, although I gather that most of the book’s readers might have an interest in Japan, not all of them will be acquainted with the Japanese language, so it might be quite bothersome and interrupting for them to encounter random Japanese words.

Secondly, even though Bradley created very solid characters and stories that covered a wide spectrum of personalities and interests, I still felt like I was reading Japanese characters written by a non-Japanese person. Of course, I understand that the author is not Japanese and this is to be expected, but I simply couldn’t shake off the feeling that quite often his characters would behave or speak in a way that felt a bit unnatural for a Japanese person.

Still, The Cat and the City is a very entertaining, unique and well-written book that is definitely worth reading, especially if you have an interest in Japan and its culture. As a debut work, it is quite promising and Bradley is definitely a writer I will be looking forward to read more of in the future.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

6

‘Being Various: New Irish Short Stories’, edited by Lucy Caldwell ****

I was thoroughly impressed by Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection, Multitudes, which I recently reviewed.  I was therefore even more keen than I had previously been to see which stories she had selected for an edited collection, entitled Being Various: New Irish Short Stories.

When skimming through the contents page of Being Various in my local library, I found a lot of authors whom I had never heard of; this is something which I love in thematic anthologies such as this one.  Amongst the new-to-me names were quite a lot of authors whom I already know and admire – Danielle McLaughlin, Louise O’Neill, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney, and Sinead Gleeson are particular favourites.

419wqpvllsl._ac_sy400_In Being Various, Caldwell was keen to bring together contributors from Northern Ireland and the Republic, all of whom have been published since the Good Friday Agreement.  The stories here have been specially commissioned for this anthology, and therefore cannot be found anywhere else.  In her introduction, Caldwell comments: ‘Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent.  I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness…  Writers who are truly the inheritors of Bowen and O’Faolain, telling twenty-first-century stories with effortless elegance and grace.’

Caldwell goes on to reflect: ‘I thought about how far Ireland has come in my lifetime and how far it has to go.’ She wanted to highlight this, and welcomed tales of ‘subjects that have long been unspoken or dismissed or taboo, with a ferocity and unsentimentality that’s breathtaking.’  Indeed, the stories deal with a lot of pivotal and topical themes – puberty, separation, change, eating disorders, death; what it means to belong, and to grow up, and to feel.

There is some really beautiful writing to be found within Being Various.  In ‘A Partial List of the Saved’, for instance, author Danielle McLaughlin writes: ‘The last time they’d travelled this road it had been summertime, not a dull day like this one, but a glorious day with the sun beating down… and bodies, eerily pale, prostrate on lawns like pieces of salt cod left to dry.  Today the fields were shrouded in drizzle.  The light was otherworldly, silver on the distant surface of the bog lakes.’

I find Irish fiction entirely engaging, and this short story collection reminded me why.  There are so many moments of clear-eyed brilliance here; so many fully-formed characters; so much emphasis upon what makes up real life.  There are characters who move to Ireland and away, and some who return to it.  The focus of Louise O’Neill’s ‘Legends’ is a young girl with an eating disorder, her ‘waistbands skimming empty spaces where flesh used to reside, the number on the weighing scales decreasing every day’; Elske Rahill’s ‘Stretch Marks’ has at its heart a woman set adrift by her latest pregnancy: ‘The baby shifts under her skin, hooking a piece of itself into her rib – a hand or a foot.  It must be mid-afternoon at least.  Thursday afternoon.  Beside the bed, two slices of toast have cooled and warped.’

Being Various presents a bold collection of stories, the majority of them realist, but with a little magical realism creeping in from time to time.  Every single story captured my attention, and I found a lot to enjoy here, and a lot to admire.  Even those which I did not like as much were very good stylistically.  The stories are so diverse that they can be read one after another, and still be entirely memorable.  There is striking imagery, and a lot of hard-hitting content, and I cannot recommend Being Various enough.