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 ****
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.
Crumbs 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 ****
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.