Tagshort fiction

Tempest: an Anthology

Tempest (ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson) is a new anthology from Patrician Press themed around the current ‘tempestuous’ political climate. It brings together fiction, non-fiction and poetry; as I’m more of a fiction reader, I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite stories.

‘The wall’ by Emma Bamford is a good example of how voice can shape a story. It’s narrated by a builder talking to his mates down the pub (“Lord, can’t a man get a bit of peace with his pint of an evening after a hard day’s labour? If I tell you, will you leave me be?”). The story his friends are so keen to hear concerns the time he was invited to America to work on a new border wall, and it didn’t work out quite as anticipated. The homely narrative voice does just enough to push the tale to one side of reality (it’s a voice that doesn’t belong in the situation it’s describing), without losing sight of the seriousness beneath.

Some of the stories in Tempest work as evocative snapshots of a strange new world, and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. ‘The carp whisperer’ by Petra McQueen and Katy Wimhurst takes us to a highly stratified world of water shortages. The protagonist is mistaken for someone who can talk to – and maybe even shapeshift into – carp. All this comes together into a striking final image of rebellion.

Justine Sless’ ‘Tempest on Tyneside’ is another of these strange snapshots. In a country beset by storms and prone to flooding, everyone is still heading to the North East for the football. But first a visitor, Miranda, has to work out the underlying geology and make sure its safe. I think that’s what she is doing, anyway; I must admit, I didn’t grasp everything that’s going on in this story. Still, it doesn’t matter to me, not when there’s such spectacle to fill the mind as the image of hundreds of football supporters on bikes descending on a brightly lit stadium while a storm rages at sea.

‘Fenner’ by Suzy Norman is a poignant tale of trying to move on after loss. It is ten years since the narrator’s musician husband, Ray, died, and now Dewi, a film-maker, wants to make a tribute to him. The narrator accepts Dewi’s request for an interview, but this stirs up old memories and brings change to the old house she shared with Ray. Norman’s writing carefully illuminates the very beginning of a new future for the protagonist.

Book details

Tempest: an Anthology (2019), ed. Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, Patrician Press, 178 pages, paperback.

Fish Soup – Margarita García Robayo

Here’s one last book for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Months and Women in Translation Month. It’s the English-language debut of Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo: a compendium of short fiction translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Edinburgh-based Charco Press, who specialise in Latin American literature. It’s a wonderfully sardonic set of stories.

Fish Soup is bookended by two novellas. In the first, Waiting for a Hurricane, a young woman longs to leave her home by the sea for… well, something more (“you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead,” she reflects). The narrator embarks on a series of relationships which she hopes will facilitate an escape (for example, she takes a job as an air hostess, then becomes involved with the Captain), but doesn’t appreciate what impact all this is having on her family, her lovers, and herself.

The closing Sexual Education is previously unpublished. It’s narrated by a student at a Catholic school who is part of a group taking a new abstinence class in place of standard sex education. However, what she’s being taught in class is rather different from what’s going on among her social group. For example, one girl is being persuaded by an older boy that a certain sexual position is not sinful, but actually allowed by the catechism. The narrator isn’t fooled:

The darkest mysteries – the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Grail – all became much clearer after being doctored by some con man who wanted something in return: a bag of coins, divine grace, Karina’s ass. It was all the same.

As so often in García Robayo’s stories, this bitter humour sits alongside something much darker. If Waiting for the Hurricane is the story of someone who refuses to see what she’s doing to herself and the world around her, the protagonist of Sexual Education is forced to question herself deeply.

Between the two novellas in Fish Soup is a collection of seven short stories with the overall title Worse Things. These pieces frequently feature protagonists who are distanced from life in some way; the stories then often lead to a point of change (or at least reflection). So, for example, in ‘You Are Here’, news of an accident at the airport and an awkward conversation with a young woman at his hotel give a businessman cause to face up to the emptiness in his life. In ‘Better Than Me’, an academic tries to persuade his estranged daughter to let him visit her; it’s a case of closely examining his life to find what might enable him to speak to her. In ‘Like a Pariah’, a woman with cancer has retreated to an old country house to convalesce, but her relationships with others may prove as difficult to handle (if not more so) than any illness.

There’s a lot to like in Fish Soup, and a distinctive voice to explore. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it.

Book details

Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe (2018), Charco Press, 212 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The Last Day – Jaroslavas Melnikas

From my point of view, it’s been a good year for new story collections. Now, admittedly, I’ve only read three, but all have been superb. First, there was Mothers by Chris Power, then, more recently, Lucy Wood’s The Sing of the Shore. My third collection is the latest Lithuanian title from Noir Press, and the English-language debut by Ukrainian-Lithuanian writer Jaroslavas Melnikas.

Across these eight stories, Melnikas’ protagonists will typically be nondescript individuals to whom something extraordinary happens, and they’ll have cause to reflect on what this means for their life. For example, the narrator of ‘On the Road’ receives a call from someone telling him to go to a certain place. When he arrives, there’s someone with directions to another place, where our man receives further directions, and so on, and so on. Food and lodgings are provided wherever the protagonist goes, by strangers who have been asked (by persons unknown) to help him. This guy may not know where he’s going or why, but he likes it:

Though my life is no longer my own, I feel I’m doing something important here. Everything that happens is important. And to be honest, it’s none of my business what it’s all about. I can sense the importance of it. Something inside me has lit up.

(translation by Marija Marcinkute)

The narrator has left his wife and daughter to go on his strange odyssey, and the story examines what it is to step away from one’s existing life. In the case of this character, he has effectively moved into a parallel world – but there are consequences for both him and those left behind, which he will have to confront eventually.

In ‘It Never Ends’, the long story that closes the book, Volodia also steps away from his everyday life, though in a rather different way. He finds an old cinema showing a strangely compelling film about a woman called Liz. This film runs constantly, 24 hours a day, but Volodia can’t find out anything about it, nor about who runs the cinema. Still, he’ll go there all hours to find out what’s happening to Liz; and he notices other regulars, particularly a young woman referred to only as “the scarecrow”, with whom he embarks on an ambiguous relationship, bonding over their mutual obsession with Liz’s story.‘It Never Ends’ twists the magic of the movies into something more sinister:

Ordinary life, which was easy to understand with its decent laws, seemed suddenly banal. I’m not saying it was entirely comfortable, in that poorly-lit auditorium, standing next to the little scarecrow who kept pulling on her already too-long nose. It was far from comfortable. Everything was opaque, strange, and my nerves were as tense as a string. I no longer understood who I was or what, to be honest, I was doing there.

I must admit I’m uncomfortable with the characterisation of the scarecrow in this story: both she and Volodia clearly have deep holes in their lives, but it feels as though she’s only really there to help him heal. Even so, ‘It Never Ends’ left me with the dizzying feeling of having my imagination cast into new shapes.

Although many of Melnikas’ stories touch on the fantastical, ‘Would You Forgive Me?’ applies his typical approach to a more down-to-earth situation. The narrator of this piece shoots a man who climbs through his bedroom window one night, and the intruder dies. The protagonist’s wife, Liuba, immediately brands her husband a murderer; the story is his attempt to come to terms with what has happened: “What kind of person was I? What was I supposed to have done then?” Melnikas traces how, over time, the event changes meaning for Liuba and the narrator.

The tales in The Last Day tend to focus on individuals or small groups of characters, but the title story has implications for the whole world. Books are published listing everyone’s time and date of death, with apparently complete accuracy. So, what does it mean for life if you know exactly when you and your loved ones will die? Melnikas offers a number of thoughts on what people broadly might choose to do – such as grand ‘leaving parties’, or children getting picked on because they’re going to die young. But his main focus is on one family, and their changing experiences of life and death:

The most interesting thing was that we never spoke about the topic again, and nothing changed, nothing at all; we even had quarrels about trifles, like before. Only, occasionally, I would remember that if we trusted that damn Book of Fates, time was ticking… It was a nightmare; you knew the hour of your death exactly and couldn’t do anything about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Last Day; its combination of reflection and light unreality was right up my street. If that’s also your kind of thing, take a look at this book.

Book details

The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2018), Noir Press, 175 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Sing of the Shore – Lucy Wood

Over the last few years, Lucy Wood has been creating her own distinctive fictional worlds of Devon and Cornwall. Although the general settings are recognisable, the places are rarely named, which to me always gives a feeling that the worlds of Wood’s stories are unbound. Each of her books has had a different focus: the stories in Diving Belles have foundations in folklore; the novel Weathering revolves around the relationship between characters and raw landscape.

Now we have Wood’s second story collection, The Sing of the Shore, which is an evocation of Cornwall off-season. An epigraph explains the book’s title: “the sing of the shore” is the varying sound of waves as they break against different surfaces (sand, pebbles, etc.), which enables experienced fishermen to tell where they are even when it’s foggy – in other words, it represents the secret soul of a place, known to locals but not to outsiders. Unlike Diving Belles, there’s only a relative tinge of the supernatural in this book – but the sense of otherworldiness running through Wood’s work is as strong as ever.

In these stories, the place gets in everything:

There’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth. We’re out on the edge of town, where the cliffs start to crumble and turn to sloping dunes. The dunes are heavy and soft, like flour in a bowl. They never stay still. They slip and shift about; sometimes growing, sometimes flattening out. When the gales come, loose sand blows down the road and heaps at our front doors.

This is from the story ‘Salthouse’, which begins with teenagers Evie and Gina going to plant their Christmas trees in the sand, as most people in the area do, in order to keep the dunes in place. On the way there, Gina suggests visiting the fair, yet seems reluctant to join in with Evie. It transpires that Gina has arranged to meet a boy, and Evie’s time at the fair becomes a kinetic dismantling of the childhood she thought she still had. Except, as the ending makes clear, some things don’t change: the sand is still there, advancing and receding as ever.

‘The Dishes’ provides another example of how Wood layers character and metaphor with a lightness of touch. In this story, Jay has moved to Cornwall with his wife Lorna for three months, where she has been seconded to a satellite ground station. Jay spends his time looking after the couple’s baby; since Lorna can’t talk about her work, a lack of meaningful conversation is getting to Jay (“All he wanted was to speak to someone and not have them say forofoo, or whatever the hell it was, back”). There are mysterious comings and goings at the neighbouring house, which also make him anxious. Wood paints an elegant study of a man succumbing to paranoia, out of little more than baby talk and next door’s phone ringing.

There’s a great range of tone among the stories in The Sing of the Shore. ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ invests a tale of a woman crossing fields and dodging cows with an atmosphere of genuine menace. ‘Way the Hell Out’ turns a conversation about a mysterious figure seen from a house into something of a shaggy dog story. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a wry catalogue of the dead, who may persist (“Now someone’s tapping on windows. Who is it? It’s Jameson with his stick, out in the rain again, trying to remember where he used to live”); it reminded me of ‘Notes from the House Spirits‘ in Diving Belles. ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ ends the volume on a melancholy note, with the story of a couple forced by circumstance to flit from house to house. A certain sense of transience may run through Wood’s tales in this book, but the stories themselves linger long in the mind.

Elsewhere

Watch Lucy Wood reading from the story ‘Home Scar’.

Read other reviews of The Sing of the Shore at Shiny New Books and Caught by the River.

Book details

The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood, 4th Estate, 230 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Reading Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths

I think that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have a list of authors who I feel are almost Too Famous To Read, let alone Too Famous To Write About, for fear of having nothing original to think or say. I know this is absurd, because a) if I want to read a given book, there’s not much to stop me, and b) the point of writing this blog is to talk about my experience of reading books – something personal to me – not to pass an exam.

Anyway: I need to get over having this list of authors Too Famous To Read. Jorge Luis Borges was on it, but now I’ve borrowed a copy of his Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings from the library for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months. I’m going to blog some thoughts on what I read, and see how it goes.

In ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Dr Yu Tsun – a Chinese scholar of English and agent of the German Empire during the First World War – is pursued by a mercenary in the pay of England. Tsun travels to the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, the only person he knows who can help him get his secret message to the Chief. Albert and Tsun discuss Tsun’s ancestor, Ts’ui Pên, who constructed a model of the universe as a labyrinth of paths, each forking at a point of possibility, creating new paths and futures with each eventuality.

It feels a little odd to read this story now, as a long-time reader of science fiction and fantasy, and therefore used to the idea of parallel worlds and branching realities (I’m assuming, of course, that these ideas would have been reasonably new to Borges’ audience in 1941). Still, there is a strong sense of Yu’s being at the centre of a labyrinth of pasts and possible futures – for example, as a point where the paths of the past collapse into the present (Yu says that he thinks his Chief disdains the Chinese “for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me”). But then there’s the ending, where all potential futures dissipate, and one reality was inevitable after all.

Book details

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Donald A. Yeats (1958), in Labyrinths (coll. 1964), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

Mothers – Chris Power: a Splice review

Today’s review is about an excellent short story collection, but first I want to introduce the venue. Splice is a new review site and small press set up by Daniel Davis Wood. It has been online only a couple of weeks, but I think it’s already establishing a distinctive and interesting approach. Each week, the site focuses on a single title: a review is published on Monday, followed by a feature or extract on Wednesday, and a round-up of related links on Friday.

This week’s book is Mothers, the debut collection from Chris Power, who writes the Guardian’s ‘brief survey of the short story‘ series. I’ve written the Monday review of Mothers, and I found it a fascinating book to read and think about.

Mothers is a collection of ten stories, mostly featuring characters who are lost in some way, often at moments of great change in their lives. Three of the stories concern the same character, Eva, her relationship with her mother, and what happens when she becomes a mother herself. Mothers is also particularly cohesive as a collection – not that the stories are linked as such, but they cast light and shade on each other in a way that’s quite remarkable to experience.

Some links:

Mothers is published in the UK on 1 March by Faber & Faber.

Book details

Mothers (2018) by Chris Power, Faber & Faber, 304 pages, hardback (review copy).

My Personal Anthology 

Every week, the writer Jonathan Gibbs invites someone to ‘dream-edit’ their own Personal Anthology of twelve short stories. Each instalment includes a few words about each story and details of where it’s available to read (including online, where applicable.

This week was my turn in the editor’s chair. I couldn’t bear to commit myself to a definitive list of ‘favourites’ (after all, I might choose a different dozen tomorrow). Instead, I’ve selected stories that left a deep impression on me at the time of reading (various points over the last 15 years). My list includes long-time friends of this blog; beloved authors; and newer discoveries.

A Personal Anthology is sent free to subscribers via TinyLetter.com on Friday afternoon (UK time). However, the entries are archived, and you can read mine here. I hope you don’t you find it interesting and will be intrigued to try some of the stories. You can subscribe to A Personal Anthology here – I warmly recommend it. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.

Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.

Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.

Listen to a reading of ‘if a book is locked’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Collector’ by Benjamin Markovits

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Somewhere near the border with Canada, Robin Bright’s wife Amy dies when she is swept off the road in a storm. Robin struggles to accept what has happened, and retreats to his big house and hobby of collecting. The story switches between the past and the present, in which Robin discovers that Amy may not be the person he thought he knew.

‘The Collector’ is written in a more conventional literary style than the previous three stories. This is less to my personal taste (I find Markovits’ technique of anonymising places, such as “H___”, particularly irritating in a contemporary story); nevertheless, there are aspects of this story that work well. There’s some effective use of metaphor, playing all of Robin’s material possessions against what little knowledge he has of Amy. And I found the ending of ‘The Collector’ especially powerful.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Collector’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ by Cynan Jones

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

loved Cynan Jones’s 2014 novel The Dig, found it vivid and unflinching. I was hoping for something similar from ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ (a story drawn from Jones’s most recent novel, Cove). I wasn’t disappointed.

The unnamed protagonist of Jones’s tale is in a kayak off the coast, catching fish and about to scatter his father’s ashes, when something goes terribly wrong. After that, his goal is to reach land. It can be summarised succinctly, but the experience of it is so much richer, thanks to Jones’s pin-sharp description and a prose that breaks apart and re-forms like waves on the sea.

What I’ve written there feels at once inadequate and just enough to capture it. ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ is simply that kind of story. 

Listen to a reading of ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. 

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