To be clear from the outset, I didn’t get on with the style of writing in this short story collection. It is published by the mighty Salt Publishing so I started with high expectations. The stories are varied and eclectic. There are fine ideas yet I struggled with their execution. I will try to explain.
The opening tale, Crime and Bread, initially struck me as quirky. Imagery is a key feature as the reader is introduced to the protagonist, a female, who states
“But life only makes sense to me when I’m burning the candle at both ends, I can’t stand that dullness, when things go stale, I can’t stand that grey area. I need sequins, raisins, spices from Morocco, French wines. What would they say if they saw me tail-spinning out of control, intravenous needles hanging from me”
So, she is looking for adventure.
She shares her dreams, then a story she is reading that she phones a friend to discuss. She sees a poster in a window that she wishes to own. Rather than purchase it, something not beyond her means, she plans to steal. The narrative follows her thoughts, actions and their consequences. The language is rich and sensuous. The reader is left to make what they will of a nebulous denouement.
I moved on to the second offering, The Watery Gowns, which explores the transformative power of confronting personal fears. The protagonist, a female, is staying in a Greek villa offered to her for a few days by parents of a friend. She goes diving with locals. She borrows their little boat to get closer to the rusting remains of a shipwrecked freighter. Again, the language is rich in description and imagery. The female’s emotions are heightened by every experience.
In Erasing the Waves the language becomes more crude in places. Two men meet after many years. They had been good friends at university. One is professionally successful while the other is frustrated by the anxiety caused by their less than successful freelance career. Conversation veers in a variety directions.
“He said nothing. For the first time I had a fear of the evening going wrong or ending in recrimination or tension, which was not what I wanted.”
This story has sections of extended dialogue, as do others in the collection. These felt stilted.
The next tale, Island, is clever, mind-bending even, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The men, with their sexual preoccupations, are stereotypes. The women’s bodies are described in detail. I grew bored at the party attended due to the characters’ shallow behaviour.
“I have a rather pessimistic view of the world at the moment. People eat shit, they watch and listen to shit and, above all, they talk shit. The average person is so stupid they probably wouldn’t be able to define what stupidity means.”
There is a futuristic element that is well done but then fell flat, perhaps deliberately. I was disappointed that a section I enjoyed was included for a valid reason but not pursued.
The variation in writing style affected flow and engagement – a disjointed narrative that even the rich language couldn’t compensate.
The Mosque of Córdoba offers beauty, calm and peace juxtaposed with hatred, murder and horror.
“What things had to happen to a man, what disfigurement had to take place for him to be willing to have his limbs scattered, for him to be willing to massacre and maim others? What false and grotesque heaven had been promised to him, had been sold to him […] for him to be willing to swear everlasting allegiance to a god synonymous with evil, hatred and murder?”
The author is presenting interesting and timely points but plot development stutters. Characters are shoe-horned in for effect.
The Chimera is another example of an interesting idea – again futuristic – spoiled for me by a sexual thread that felt unnecessary.
The Rich and the Slaughtered is an example of a real world problem being explored but in a structure I couldn’t engage with. Set in London’s RAC Club, a dinner is being recounted. It presents the self-entitlement of the privileged.
“The moment seemed to be indicating that all was as it should be once again and that the skeleton of social injustice had been shoved back once more where it belonged – in the cupboard marked Irrelevant.”
The themes are worthy but the fractured telling doesn’t quite come together.
The Meltdown takes a playful stab at modern architecture, and offers up an extreme case of a clash of musical tastes. The protagonist is a village schoolmaster with an interest in world cultures and history. He cannot understand those who are content.
“Would Marjorie Bowles, the local pharmacist, one day realise that life was not merely waking and working and supper and television, that another music played somewhere”
By now I realised that each of the stories in the collection offered not just one plot or one theme – that the frequent changes in direction were deliberate. This didn’t work for me as a reader.
I didn’t enjoy The Balls which felt predictable and, again, presented man driven by sex, and woman as an object to be attained and then owned. The characters lacked nuance and depth.
The Visitation has fishermen pondering on what could be living beneath their vessels after a grotesque creature is swept ashore. These men have accepted the horrors they live alongside, gossiping inanely of such things as a twelve year old relative who is pregnant. They fear the consequences of the natural more than the man made.
Alba introduces yet another beautiful young woman, as if love can only be offered to the aesthetically pleasing. She muses
“Sometimes I think you are in love with a sense of me as someone else, sometimes I think you don’t know me at all”
According to the metaphors employed, men only value what they can have sex with and looks are key. A ‘bovine woman’ is described as reading an ‘airport novel’ – terms employed as derogatory.
Again, in The Fever
“She was on the wrong side of forty, with depleted features and a beaten-up body, but not unattractive, not without a certain 3am allure”
I wondered if this tale, an American road trip, was intended as a pastiche.
The final story in the collection also jumped between plot threads, stilted dialogue and vivid imagery. Two sisters are travelling together in Sri Lanka. The horror of an evening changes their life view.
Aware that I am sensitive to what I regard as unnecessary sexual description, that I prefer my fiction to be character driven, this collection may simply not have been targeted at me. I won’t be retaining it for rereading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.