TagSarah Salway

ShortStoryVille and the Bristol Short Story Prize

Last Saturday was the inaugural (and, I’m sure, not the last) ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol, in which Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize had kindly asked me to participate. When I arrived in Bristol that morning, the weather was grey, miserable and damp—in other words, perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. But it was great to see how many people had instead made the trip to the Arnolfini arts centre to hear short stories being read and discussed.

In the day’s first panel, the writer and critic Bidisha interviewed Sarah Salway, Alison MacLeod, and Janice Galloway about the art of writing short fiction. The three authors also read from their work, which really brought home to me how much their work seemed intended to be spoken; with Galloway’s piece especially, it was a completely different experience hearing the rhythms of her prose read aloud. Following on from the writing panel, we flipped it around to discuss reading short stories, and this was where I joined Scott Pack and Clare Hey in conversation with Tania Hershman; I think (and hope!) that we managed to say something interesting and useful.

The second half of the day began with Joe Spurgeon of the local magazine Venue interviewing Helen Oyeyemi and Stuart Evers about their latest books; if you haven’t read them, do, as both are very good indeed. Then came a series of readings from local writers, compèred by Bristol Prize chair of judges, Bertel Martin; the authors involved were Sarah Hilary, Patricia Ferguson, Gareth Powell, Emma Newman, Tania Hershman, and Amy Mason. Between their readings and recommendations, I have yet more books I want to investigate.

And after ShortStoryVille came the presentation of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Emily Bullock, who won for her story ‘My Girl’; I read it on the train home, and it is a worthy winner. My thanks to Joe Melia and everyone else involved in ShortStoryVille for superb day; I am pleased to have been a part of it, and hope that it will turn out to have been the first of many. At a time when the BBC has announced plans to reduce the volume of short fiction programming on Radio 4, it’s good to have an event like ShortStoryVille to reassert that the short story is a vital art form.

Elsewhere

Some more write-ups of ShortStoryVille…
Vanessa Gebbie
Clare Hey
Tania Hershman

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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