CategoryEvers Stuart

Stuart Evers, Your Father Sends His Love (2015)

father

Dean and Rachel had married at twenty; their lack of other sexual experiences a shock to others. As their friends’ relationships became soured and twisted, hoarse from shouting and bitter from drink, Dean and Rachel’s home was a constant: a clam place to hide, a sofa on which to sleep, a place of caring and safety. When later they managed to secure a mortgage on a two-up, two-down, Dean and Rachel’s more infrequent guests swapped the sofa for their own room and bed.

By their early thirties, Dean and Rachel’s relationship had become underscored by a quiet yet growing sense of trauma. The friends who’d crashed their sofa got married and Dean and Rachel went to their weddings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa had children, and Dean and Rachel went to their naming parties and christenings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa asked them to be godparents and Dean and Rachel politely declined. The IVF was an expensive joke.

This is a passage from ‘Frequencies’, a short story in Stuart Evers’ new collection Your Father Sends His Love, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

Book notes: Toby Litt and Stuart Evers

Toby Litt, Ghost Story (2004)

Toby Litt is an author I’ve intended to read for ages; his work is so varied that it’s hard to know where to start, so I just went for something from the middle of his career to date. I may not know Litt’s work that well, but I know enough to be wary of a novel that so blatantly declares its (ostensible) genre. And, indeed, Ghost Story is not a ghost story as you might imagine; its ‘ghosts’ are not the supernatural kind.

When first we meet Agatha and Paddy, she’s expecting, and they’re about to leave London for a new home on the south coast. After they’ve moved in, Agatha has given birth to Max, but miscarried his twin, which has affected her deeply (as it has Paddy, but Agatha is the novel’s main focus), and she becomes withdrawn. Effectively, Agatha comes to haunt (and is haunted by) her own house. Litt tells this story in a way that highlights its fictionality: long descriptive passages which create a sense of lassitude, dialogue which feels theatrical rather than naturalistic – and there’s a tension between this and the book’s emotions, which ring so true.

It seems to me that key to understanding Ghost Story is its fifty-page preface, in which Litt describes how he and his partner were themselves affected by three miscarriages. This memoir also includes a couple of fantastical sections; the sense here is that fiction can tell certain kinds of truth which non-fiction cannot. The story of Agatha and Paddy strikes me as a portrait of loss which lies beneath the surface of what’s told, and is perhaps all the more powerful for it.

Elsewhere
Toby Litt’s website
Some other reviews of Ghost Story: Reading Matters; Joanna Briscoe for The Guardian.

Stuart Evers, If This Is Home (2012)

The author of last year’s excellent Ten Stories About Smoking returns with his first novel, which continues to explore how life may fall short of one’s dreams. Evers’ protagonist is Mark Wilkinson, who escaped his life in Cheshire and made it in America as ‘Joe Novak’; when we meet him in the early 2000s, he’s in Las Vegas , selling apartments at the ultra-high-end Valhalla complex. Alternate chapters chronicle a day in 1990 when Mark’s teenage girlfriend Bethany Wilder became a reluctant beauty queen at a parade, shortly before she and Mark were planning to leave for New York. But Bethany is nowhere to be seen in Mark’s present life – what happened becomes clear about halfway through the novel, when an incident moves Mark to return to the UK and catch up with the people and places of his own life.

There are some striking and well-handled shifts of tone in If This Is Home. In the opening chapters, the Valhalla complex seems almost to belong in a more heightened reality, which contrasts sharply with the down-to-earth nature of the Cheshire-set sequences. Later on, the novel starts to turn on Mark’s character and, balances reality with a slight unreality in a different way – yet If This Is Home always feels a cohesive whole. Evers examines the difficulties of fitting in, leaving and returning; and shows how an individual can simultaneously have no options and all the choice in the world.

Elsewhere

Stuart Evers’ website
Evers interviewed on Nikesh Shukla’s Subaltern podcast.
Some other reviews of If This Is Home: Julie Fisher for Bookmunch; Dog Ear Discs; David Whelan for Litro.

A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

***

And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

***

So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking (2011)

The saying goes that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it would seem wrong not to mention the design of Ten Stories About Smoking, which comes in a flip-top box that looks like a cigarette packet, with the cover of the volume itself as the ‘cigarettes’.  It’s a brilliant piece of work that really enhances the reading experience, and I take my hat off to the designers, Two Associates.

Of course, as good as the design may be, what counts the most is the quality of the stories; I’m pleased to say that Stuart Evers has written a fine selection here. First, the title of the collection: all the stories feature smoking in some way, but often in the background, so the tales aren’t necessarily ‘about smoking’ in a literal sense—but Evers often gives smoking a metaphorical purpose in his stories, and they can be ‘about’ what smoking represents within them.

‘Things Seem So Far Away, Here’ is a good example of what I mean. Having received news from the doctor that effectively derails her life, Linda goes to visit her younger, more successful, brother Daniel, in the hope that she’ll be hired to look after her niece, Poppy. Evers doesn’t need to use description to evoke the difference between Daniel’s comfortable middle-class family life and Linda’s bedsit existence, because it’s there in the details that Linda observes, and the way that she knows how Daniel’s lifestyle works (on observing family photographs in the main room, Linda is aware that ‘should anything happen to her brother’s family, these were the photos that would be given to the television and the newspapers,’ p. 32). When Linda makes the comment that gives the story its title, she may be referring to the isolated rural location of Daniel’s house, but we also feel the distance between the siblings’ lives, because so little detail of Linda’s home life is given in comparison to that of Daniel’s family. Linda’s smoking habit comes to represent that distance, and the image of a smoke-tainted jumper symbolises how far it will remain.

Evers’ characters frequently find their plans and ambitions thwarted. Moore, the protagonist of ‘Some Great Project’ is looking for something to occupy his mind after the deaths of his parents, but nothing quite works until he starts cataloguing old family photos—which leads him to discover that he has a brother about whom he never knew. Moore travels to Spain in search of his brother, but it doesn’t work out how he imagined. In this story, smoking is a symbol of the lives that never were, as Moore’s brother lights the cigarettes of his fallen Falklands comrades; but the theme of lost opportunities is carried all the way through, from the opening scene of the teenage Moore being denied the chance to read his grandfather’s collection of adventure novels, to the ironic closing twist. ‘Some Great Project’ is a very elegantly constructed piece.

Sometimes in Ten Stories About Smoking, there’s a striking sense that the ‘real story’, as it were’ is going on elsewhere, yet the tales are no less satisfying for that. ‘Real Work’ depicts the gradual unravelling of the relationship between Ben and his artist girlfriend Cara; the two come from different worlds, and Ben gradually becomes disillusioned as he realises that he and Cara simply want different things from life.  But it’s the subtle way Evers depicts the process of this which makes the story work so well; by the end, when Cara is exhibiting her new film, little may have changed on the surface, yet we know how much really has. Even more striking is ‘The Best Place in Town’, in which David Falmer, on a stag-party trip to Las Vegas, takes a walk through the city that acts as a kinetic way for him to come to terms with his discontents (also symbolised by the way Falmer begins the story smoking for the first time in thirteen years, and ends it admiring a magician doing tricks with cigarettes)—but the very last scene reveals that John, the bridegroom-to-be, has problems of his own, which have not been (and will not be) explored; and this creates an interesting effect when set against the completeness of Falmer’s story.

Perhaps the tale which is most directly concerned with smoking is the book’s closing piece, aptly titled ‘The Final Cigarette’. This concerns a dying man named Ray Peters, who is having what will probably be his last smoke. Two versions of this alternate: in one, Ray is American, and on his hotel balcony in Reno, two days after marrying a younger woman; in the other strand, Ray is British, waiting for the end in hospital, and being visited by his son, though his wife refuses to see him. The contrast between these two versions of reality is well-drawn and powerful, with the American strand (which I took to be imaginary) a vision of happiness and strength (given Ray’s situation, that is), with even the cigarette-smoking looking and feeling good. In the British reality (the ‘real’ reality, perhaps), however, Ray is slowly wasting away, his smoking comes across as a desperate comfort for a dying man, and his relations with those around him are not always cordial. ‘The Final Cigarette’ is a vivid portrait of the realities of life not living up to one’s dreams. That sums up what strikes me as the main theme of Stuart Evers collection –a book of ten fine stories which are about plenty more than just smoking.

Elsewhere
Read ‘Some Great Project (Litro) and ‘What’s in Swindon?‘ (Scarecrow) from the collection.
Stuart Evers’ blog
Booktrust interview with Evers
Some other reviews of Ten Stories About Smoking: James Doyle for Bookmunch; Just William’s Luck; Leyla Sanai for The Independent; Alex Preston for New Statesman.

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