The stories in Sarah Salway’s collection Leading the Dance (recently republished in a new edition) are built from elements that are ostensibly largely quotidian, but often treated in a way that lays bare the significance that everyday things can have to people. Let’s start with the title story, which is a fine illustration of this (as well as being one of my favourite pieces in the book); it tells of a couple attending a school ceilidh, but also of the tensions running through their relationship. The man is quickly—and chillingly—established as a threatening figure (‘For a child to cry during one of Daddy’s moods is not a good thing because then he’ll teach them how it really feels to hurt,’ p. 139); he attends the ceilidh only reluctantly, and makes sure his partner, Deborah, knows that; for Deborah’s part, she knows how destructive is this relationship, but still finds herself drawn to the man (who is not named, thereby depersonalising him and emphasising the sense of his being a threat). The act of leading the dance comes to represent the struggle to exert control over the relationship; Salway superbly maintains a sense of menace throughout.
Some of the tales gain their effect from a quirk of the viewpoint interacting with plot events. ‘Quiet Hour’ is rich in dramatic irony: its child protagonist, Malcolm, waits in his father’s new car and investigates what all the buttons do; he’s not aware of the implications of his father’s comment that ‘Mummy and I are going to have a little sleep’ (p. 44), nor of why his usual tactics for good behaviour are not working at the end—but the reader is, which results in a very entertaining story.
‘Alphabet Wednesdays’ uses its structure as well as its voice to put distance between the reader and its underlying reality. Flora is unable (or unwilling) to talk, and has been placed in a special group with three other girls at school, which aims to raise their self-esteem. The girls have been asked to keep a journal about their role models, each to begin with a different letter of the alphabet; the text of the story is that of Flora’s journal. At first, it’s quite amusing to read Flora’s naive voice describing a series of apparently disconnected subjects, but the difficulties of Flora’s home life (the extent of which she herself is not fully aware) gradually become clear; when Flora writes about dancing to Gloria Gaynor, we sense the additional weight of what her mother always says: ‘We can do it…We can survive” (p.30).
Elsewhere in Leading the Dance are stories where the situation depicted is more extraordinary. The narrator of ‘The Woman Downstairs’ describes matter-of-factly how she pushed a visitor down the cellar stairs, and now keeps her trapped there. Precisely what is going on here is uncertain—there are hints that the captive woman may be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination; but, whatever the situation, it’s clear that the narrator is struggling to cope with reality. Salway evokes the character’s mindset subtly yet thoroughly.
In ‘Painting the Family Pet’, a portrait painter arrives on Helen’s doorstep; Amy Turner paints pets, but there are no animals in this household, so she ends up painting the fridge instead. It’s an absurd situation, but Salway makes it work, partly by treating it with complete conviction within the story, but also by giving it metaphoric import—we learn that Helen has bulimia, and the fridge and its portrait come to represent something of the effect her condition has had on Helen’s relationship with her partner Dan. As with the title story, the events of this tale carry greater significance than they might seem to on their own terms.
By covering five pieces out of eighteen, I’m in a sense only scratching the surface of the collection; but I hope I’ve managed to give a flavour of why Leading the Dance is such an interesting set of stories.
Sarah Salway’s website
Some other reviews of Leading the Dance: Nuala Ní Chonchúir at The Short Review; Caroline Smailes at The Reader; Elizabeth Baines.