Jane Rogers, Hitting Trees with Sticks (2012)
It’s no surprise to see “Winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award” on the front cover of Jane Rogers’ first story collection – The Testament of Jessie Lamb is probably her best-known novel right now, and no doubt for many (including myself) it was an introduction to her work. So it seems worth asking as a way in, where do the stories of Hitting Trees with Sticks stand in relation to Jessie Lamb? Well, think of that novel as a tale about understanding – about a girl trying to explain herself to the parents who can’t understand the choice she wants to make. Understanding (or failure to understand) is a theme that also runs through this collection, and Rogers approaches it from many angles.
There are some adolescent protagonists in Hitting Trees with Sticks, but they don’t necessarily get Jessie Lamb’s chance to set their thoughts out. In ‘Sports Leader’, a boy who’s missed out on a place at college takes a job as a window cleaner – partly because it lets him nosy into other people’s houses. One senses that he means well at heart, but isn’t too worldly-wise; as a result, others may take advantage of him. The Sports Leadership course for which he still holds out becomes a symbol of the boy’s thwarted hopes and potential.
At least he still has a life ahead of him, though, unlike the title character of ‘Where Are You, Stevie?’ The story begins with a narrator, Amanda, expressing her current frustrations: Christmas is getting earlier, and why have they sent that young lout to work at the theatre, it’s not as if he’ll do anything… But she is brought up short when she learns that Stevie is dead. We then hear from Stevie’s grandmother, his girlfriend, and his neighbour, who each reveal more about him; we come to see how Stevie got into the situation he did, and that there was more to him than Amanda supposed. The presence of Stevie looms large even though he is fundamentally absent; he is understood by the reader as he could not have been by those in his life.
Elsewhere in the collection, Rogers’ characters are finding that they didn’t know as much as they thought, or try to hide knowledge from others. The narrator of ‘Kiss and Tell’ was on a writing retreat with a famous politician whom she at first thought obnoxious, though she eventually had cause to change her mind. ‘The Tale of a Naked Man’ sees a Ugandan man arrive home nude at 4am in a bush taxi and attempt to convince his wife that his story of being waylaid by bandits is true – but there’s no real way of knowing, as story piles upon story. In ‘Conception’, a mother is reluctant to tell her daughter what she and her partner were thinking when the girl was conception. ‘Morphogenesis’ presents Alan Turing as a man who apprehended the workings of the universe as had none before him, but was ultimately destroyed by a human world that refused to understand him.
The title story of Hitting Trees with Sticks is also its closing piece, and for me its most powerful. It is a first-person portrait of Celia Benson, an old woman with dementia. Rogers takes us inside a psyche which continually makes and remakes the world. Celia’s viewpoint makes sense to her, and the details that don’t fit are mistakes or absent-mindedness – the Meals on Wheels must be for some poor old dear, not her; and Celia has obviously just mislaid the shopping. But then the moment passes, and a new present is formed: Celia has lost the sense of continuity that would enable her to engage with the world – though of course, as far as she’s concerned, nothing is wrong. ‘Hitting Trees with Sticks’ is a harrowing piece of fiction, made all the more so by our knowledge that its protagonist cannot step out of the perspective we experience through her narration. As readers, we understand Celia all too well.
This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.