Sunday, 30 March 2008

Shorter Than Fiction

It's always difficult to review collections of short stories, or even consider them in one's mind effectively. Should they be treated as ten or twenty separate works, or as one work? Sometimes there is an obvious linking style - as with Katherine Mansfield, say - which makes every narrative unmistakably by the same author, even if you can't put your finger on the reason why. Other writers, like Clare Wigfall (whose The Loudest Sound and Nothing I talked about last August) have a huge variety and range in their style. I don't think either approach is intrinsically superior, but the former is lot easier to make generalisations about!

Two short story writers have sent me their debut collections recently, both of w
hom are rather prolific and much-published in various publications. Balancing on the Edge of the World by Elizabeth Baines, and Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie. I think the best way to chat about these books is to pick the story from each which I most enjoyed, and which is fairly representative, and use that as a starting point.

The blurb to Baines' Balancing on the Edge of the Worlds says the stories are all about power - the keeping, losing, grasping or relinquishing of it. That's probably as unifying a theme as any, but it's probably easier to suggest a unifying style. Baines' writing has a soothing softness to it, but somehow each story feels haunted and uneasy, until a turn (nothing so histrionic as a 'twist', if you can see the difference) justifies this foreboding. But even with uneasiness, and occasional tragedy, that softness remains.

The story I wanted to pick out is 'Compass and Torch' - in the third person, an uncertain boy on a trip with his Dad, whom he doesn't often see. 'The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dad.' The awkwardness of their relationship - with its latent closeness, and surface of discomfort - is portrayed so exactly. We see it first in relation to the torch, of wh
ich the boy is so anxiously proud:

The boy is chattering: 'Have you brought one too, have you brought a torch?' 'Oh, yes!' Is this a problem? the boy suddenly wonders. Does this make one of the torches redundant? For a brief moment he is uncertain, potentially dismayed, a mood which the man, for all his distraction, catches. 'We can use both of them, can't we, Dad?' 'Oh yes! Yes, of couse!' Then a swoop of delight: 'We can light up more with both, can't we?' 'Oh yes, certainly!' The man too is gratefully caught on a wave of triumph. 'Oh, yes, two are definitely better! Back-up, for a start.'
I shouldn't dream of telling you the end of this story, except that it is done calmly in a couple of sentences, and won't leave your mind for some time. Baines' stories are executed with a subtle smoothness, and a precise portrayal of human relationships - both the surface of them, and what goes on underneath. A great debut.

Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie has an equally varied group of scenarios, narrators and themes - but her voice is rather harsher, m
ore concerned with the gritty and the earthy. Occasionally a quieter voice creeps through, which leaves one staring at the page at the sheer pathos Gebbie can create. 'The Kettle on the Boat', for instance, where parents quietly take their Inuit daughter away on a boat; she narrates the journey, and leave her for adoption: "If I am not there to help, how will Mama know when the fish are ready?"

The one I wanted to point to, though, is 'Cactus Man'. 'The Kettle on the Boat' was my favourite, but 'Cactus Man' is perhaps more representative. 'Spike', an enthusiast and collector of cacti , wants to discover his real name because he is getting married. He visits a social worker who can look through his files and tell him.

'I was saying how unusual your case is.' 'Can't be doing with too much usual.' 'Sorry?' 'We feed off being unusual, us lot.' 'Oh, I see'.

The story is one of muted disappointment, understated grief and an eventual path of hope for Spike. Gebbie is at her most subtle here, and manages to evoke the lives of her central characters completely, visualised through the stilted attempts of Spike to gain a firmer grasp on his identity. There is nothing so saccharine as a 'love conquers all' message here (however true that may be) but a sense that hope can be found amongst fragility and discouragement.

Both collections are published by Salt Publishing.

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