CategorySalway Sarah

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.

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.

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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.

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

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance (2006)

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.

Elsewhere
Sarah Salway’s website
Speechbubble Books
Some other reviews of Leading the Dance: Nuala Ní Chonchúir at The Short Review; Caroline Smailes at The Reader; Elizabeth Baines.

Library of Lost Books: Echeverría and Salway

Esteban Echeverría, The Slaughteryard (1871/2010)
Sarah Salway, Something Beginning With (2004)

I’m a sucker for an eclectic list, and that’s exactly what is provided by The Friday Project’s new ‘Library of Lost Books’, a series that aims to bring back into print some titles that have fallen by the wayside for whatever reason. They’re available as handsome little print-on-demand volumes, as well as ebooks. The Library is being launched with four titles, all very different; here, I’ll be looking at two of them.

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Esteban Echeverría’s short story ‘El matadero’ (originally published in 1871, twenty years after its author’s death, and here translated as The Slaughteryard by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe) is, says di Giovanni’s introduction, one of the ‘cornerstones of Argentine literature’. I must admit here and now that I know very little about the literature and history of Argentina (and of Latin America in general), so I’m coming to The Slaughteryard very much as a general reader.

Fortunately for me, di Giovanni has supplied a substantial introduction and glossary which do an excellent job of providing context (and there’s a lot of context to provide). The story itself is set during Lent of 1839, and tells of a group of Federalists who get to work on  a bull in one of the slaughteryards of Buenos Aires, before a turning on a young man of the opposing Unitarian faction. Echeverría’s prose is dripping with irony (on the arrival of a herd of bullocks at the slaughteryard, at a time of year when eating meat was prohibited: ‘How odd that some stomachs should be privileged and some bound by inviolable laws, and that the Church should hold the key to both!’, p. 9); on a narrative level, in his portrait of the city, he builds very well the tension which is so violently released at the end; and, on a more figurative level, Echeverría’s use of butchery as a metaphor for the treatment of political opponents is worked through the whole text. The result is a powerful piece of work.

The volume is rounded out with additional material from di Giovanni, including the original Spanish text of ‘El matadero’, several accounts by other hands of the Buenos Aires slaughteryards, and some (translated) verses from the time. I must say that the presentation of The Slaughteryard in this volume is an excellent example of how to make an old text accessible to contemporary general readers whilst still allowing them to discover that text for themselves.

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From a 140-year-old text to one which first appeared only six years ago. Sarah Salway’s debut novel, Something Beginning With (aka The ABCs of Love) is the story of Verity Bell, a secretary in an industrial publishing company, who falls in love with a married man just as her best friend Sally’s own affair enters turbulent waters.

The most immediately striking thing about Something Beginning With is its structure: the novel is arranged like an encyclopedia, with alphabetical entries (which have headings from ‘Baked Beans’ to ‘Railway Stations’ and ‘True Romance’) and cross-references. What this does is make the narrative highly fragmented, so that passages from the fictional present jostle with recollections from Verity’s past and her inner wonderings. From these pieces, we build up a portrait of a young woman who is pretty insecure with herself, and not always a sympathetic character. From an early scene in which the eleven-year-old Verity destroys an ant colony with boiling water, Salway drops in these details that complicate and colour our mental image of Verity.

Perhaps Verity’s greatest wish in life is ‘to matter’ (p. 154), not to be one of those people who goes through life never being noticed by anyone. But she doesn’t make life easy for herself: emotionally, she can push people away; and, materially, she has the financial means to live much more comfortably than she does. The way Salway portrays Verity, and especially with that alphabetical structure, one starts to wonder just how much is not being said and what might be happening in between the passages of the text. On the strength of this, I’ll be looking out for more of Sarah Salway’s work – and, of course, for more titles in the Library of Lost Books.

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Further links

The Slaughteryard
Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s website
Caroline Smailes blogs about the book and interviews di Giovanni

Something Beginning With
Sarah Salway’s website
Cardigangirlverity blogs the book

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