BBC National Short Story Award 2018: ‘To Belong To’ – Kerry Andrew

The thirteenth BBC National Short Story Award shortlist was announced just over a week ago. On it are five stories written by female writers: ‘To Belong To’ by Kerry Andrew, ‘Sudden Traveller’ by Sarah Hall, ‘Van Rensburg’s Card’ by Kiare Ladner, ‘The Sweet Sop’ by Ingrid Persaud and ‘The Minutes’ by Nell Stevens. Because I love short stories and writers who happen to be women, I’ve teamed up with the award and will be bringing you extracts from each of the shortlisted stories, as well as videos from some of the writers and some of the judges talking about the work. One every day this week, in alphabetical order.

To Belong To (extract)
Kerry Andrew

This is a good place to die.

He stands at the edge. The height sends the hangover lurching to his stomach. The closeness of toes to air.

Below, the sea is bladed, black. A thousand fulmars stipple the cliffs either side of him, their cries a blur. On the lowest rocks, a little way out, are the thicker brushstrokes of seals, resting. There had been talk of hearing their song, but if it is there, it is blunted by the wind.

He curls his toes. The ground curves, falls away gently, almost inviting it.

There will be a short moment of great pain. His head might catch on a rock. His back break. But once he has made the decision to jump, he will have to take whatever comes.

One movement. A footstep, into nothing.

In the sea, by the seal rocks, there is a small spot, bobbing. A lone adventurer perhaps, going further out to find the fish.

Another moment or two, to listen for the singing.

He closes his eyes, holds his arms out. The Angel of the North, transported to the outer edge of the country. He stands as still as he is able.

When he opens his eyes again, the spot has moved past the others, towards the cliffs.

He watches, wind pummelling the length of his arms.

In the shallows, it rises, and is not a seal. Long slabs of flesh, dark at the ends. The woman stands for a moment, looking back out to sea, and he thinks he hears something, words or a melody. Then she is turning, walking the few steps over the paler stones to a strung ladder that he had not noticed, tucked in at the bottom of the rocks. His eyes trace the journey that she must take, move just ahead of her as she scrambles over turf and quickly crosses two unsecured planks of wood. A rope, glinting silver, zigzags up the cliff and she ascends, once or twice leaning outwards, very close to the edge.

She disappears for a moment in the fold of the hill and he waits, his eyes on the sodden green line where she must appear. He puts his arms by his sides.

A fulmar passes at head height. He can see the architecture of its beak.

There.

She walks towards him, clothed now. Sports leggings, a fleece. The gloves and socks she was wearing gone. Her hair is mostly slicked back, a short cap of it, glints of blue or green, almost mineral. Her arms are folded, shoulders hunched. She keeps walking towards him and for a moment he wonders if he hasjumped, that his body lies dismantled on the stones, before she stops right next to him.

Push me, he thinks.

She stares up at him. Hard, brown eyes. ‘Come on,’ she says, before striding past.

And he does.

Kerry Andrew is a composer and writer. Her debut novel, Swansong, was published by Jonathan Cape in January 2018. She performed her debut short story One Swallowon BBC Radio 4 in 2014. She is the winner of four British Composer Awards and has a PhD in Composition from the University of York. As a composer, she specialises in experimental vocal and choral music, music-theatre and community music. She made her BBC Proms debut in 2017 with No Place Like for BBC Ten Pieces and was Chair of the jury for the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2018. She performs alternative folk music under the banner of You Are Wolf and sings with award-winning a cappella trio Juice Vocal Ensemble. Originally from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, Kerry lives in London.

The winners of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 2ndOctober on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlisted stories are available in an anthology published by Comma Press, out now: https://commapress.co.uk/books/the-bbc-national-short-story-award-2018

 

 

The Other One – a short story by Amy Bonnaffons

I have a treat for you today, thanks to W&N Books: a short story from Amy Bonnaffons debut collection. The Wrong Heaven. Bonnaffons is a founding editor of 7×7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. She is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.

The Wrong Heaven is an offbeat, inventive look at women’s lives. It’s funny and smart and piercing. I enjoyed it a lot. W&N let me choose the story I wanted to share so, as I complain a lot that there isn’t enough writing about music published by women, I chose the story about Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand in My Pocket’ although, of course, it’s also about so much more than that.

The Other One by Amy Bonnaffons

As far as I could tell, I was the only customer at JoyfulSongTime. Again. This was the third day in a row I had spent my lunch break here, and I had yet to encounter another person, aside from the teenage attendant who’d swiped my credit card and then solemnly handed me a sparkly tambourine.

I didn’t even like karaoke. I had come here for a very specific reason: to sing one song and one song only, over and over again, until I was hoarse. The goal was a kind of immersion therapy. The goal was to sing Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” until it lost its hold on me.

Why “Hand in My Pocket”? I had no idea. Believe me, I had tried to figure it out, why this song of all the songs in the world should have woken me in the middle of the night, and then stayed. I’d had songs in my head before, of course. But this song inhabited me. It blared so loudly through my consciousness that I couldn’t focus on the briefs I had to write, couldn’t help but walk in time with its beat, pace my thinking to its slow loopy cadence.

I couldn’t afford the distraction. I was planning a wedding, and I had dozens of billable hours ahead of me. I worked at the kind of Midtown law firm where peopleactually said things like “I need this done yesterday!” I got the sense that if an associate lost focus noticeably enough, the partners would take her into a quiet back conference room, where she would be discreetly beheaded. Our clients were the people who owned America, America’s version of kings. They’d tolerate no slack, no whimsy.

’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving a high five.

I hadn’t intended to end up at a place like McNally, Bose & Gold. I went to law school with noble civic intentions; I wanted to be Erin Brockovich. But then I joined the firm to pay off my loans, and discovered my own deep veins of masochism and venality. It became addictive to tap those veins, to discover new veins when the original ones had become depleted through overuse. I succumbed to a pleasurable moral swoon. I began to indulge in other activities I’d previously disdained: spin classes, boozy brunches, adultery. When the married partner I’d been fucking left his wife to be with me, it seemed like my new, self- centered worldview had triumphed.

Now, a year and a half later, Dennis and I were engaged. I had always claimed, for feminist reasons, that if I ever got married I would forgo a white wedding dress, but that was before I saw myself refracted in the mirrored bridal dressing room at Bloomingdale’s, in a gown with a plunging front and lacy back, looking like a beautiful stranger, like the kind of woman I previously never would have even bothered to envy because she was so completely of another realm, apart in her feathery grace from the clunk and sweat of daily reality. I had done the impossible, what everyone wants to do: I had become a different person.

Then, about a week after my dress fitting, I awoke with an ache in my abdomen and a shocking river of blood between my legs. My periods had always been irregular, but usually they came on more gently; this flood was sudden and absolute. Biblical. I rinsed and replaced the sheets (luckily, Dennis had already left for work), plugged myself with a tampon, and dragged my sluggish, sodden self to the office—but after a few hours I gave up and left to work from home. I was extracting a saturated tampon twice an hour. Was this body really the same graceful, confectionary thing I’d seen in the Bloomingdale’s mirror last week? I couldn’t believe what it seemed to be saying about itself, that it could spew forth such carnage.

When I got home, I took my laptop to bed with a bar of chocolate and a hot water bottle. At first this was a relief, but I soon found myself wrenched by a sudden, crippling sadness. I curled up in the fetal position for an hour, uncurling myself only to pull open my laptop and Google am i having a miscarriage???

The thought had occurred to me suddenly, with an inner shock of something-like-certainty, but the Internet could not tell me for sure. It wasn’t likely that I could have gotten pregnant (I was on birth control) but it was possible (I’d missed a day here and there). I’d certainly never bled like this before. I debated calling my gynecologist, I debated calling Dennis, but in the end I did neither.

I didn’t even tell Dennis my suspicion when he got home and asked, with tender boyfriendly solicitude, how I was feeling. By then the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. I simply moaned and turned over onto my stomach and accepted his offer of a back rub. My head was turned to the side and I could see our reflection in the window: a woman prone on her bed, her caramel-colored hair spilling out over the pillow, while a tall handsome man tenderly strokes her back. It was a nice picture. The whole idea suddenly seemed impossible and ridiculous, the idea that I might have had a miscarriage. It didn’t fit. I felt faintly embarrassed about the whole thing. I murmured Thank you to Dennis, and something like You’re the best, and something involving love.

The next morning, when I woke up, my belly had stopped aching, and Dennis’s heavy arm lay across my body like a caveman’s club, and I felt protected and out of danger and blissfully sane. At work I was myself again. That night we drank a bottle of wine and I gave him a blow job that made me feel like the blow job champion of the world, like a real winner. Things were back to normal.

Then, in the middle of the night, it started: the song. It woke me at 3 a.m., pounding through my head like an insistent revelation, preventing me from sleeping until morning.

The teenage attendant led me down the hall and showed me into the dim cave of room 6: small and dark, with padded vinyl couches and swirling disco lights. He went through the same routine I’d seen several times already, the silent flight-attendant-style pointing, showing me the binders full of laminated lists of song titles, the remote I would use to enter their identifying numbers, the button I would press if I wanted to order some beer or shrimp- flavored chips.

“Have a joyful song time,” he whispered. Then he ex- ited the room, shuffling backwards, pulling the door shut behind him.

I sat down, entered the familiar six digits, and heard the opening strains of “Hand in My Pocket”: not the actual Alanis song but the bubbly karaoke version, accompanied by video images of a blond couple strolling down a Parisian boulevard, both wearing flippy ’90s-era hats and laughing heartily, heads thrown back, as if the streets of Paris were inherently hilarious. I now knew this couple intimately; they had transcended their initial ridiculousness and come to seem inevitable, as if they had emerged directly from my unconscious, as if I had dreamed them myself.

My first lunch break at JoyfulSongTime, I’d tried to push the song out of my head by replacing it. I sang sexy songs with frank lyrics (“Drunk in Love,” “I Touch Myself,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”). I sang ballads of naked self-pity (“All by Myself,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “November Rain”). I sang songs I secretly loved (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and secretly hated (“Call Your Girlfriend”). For about five minutes after I left, my head was blessedly silent. But within a few blocks, she was there again, Alanis: yelping about high fives and cigarettes, musically distilling the paradoxes of her personality, bleating through my consciousness.

The second day I tried a different strategy: I only sang “Hand in My Pocket.” It didn’t work, not really, but I felt I was on to something: as I wailed the words hoarsely into the small dark room—Alanis’s litany of contradictory feelings, overwhelmed and high and hopeful and lost—they seemed to take on a deeper significance. They resonated like talismans of hidden meaning: like if I only sang them enough times, in my own voice, they would reveal their secrets, and I would be cured, enlightened, released from the torture of their repetition.

•••

For the past couple of years, I’d had exactly two feelings: “overworked” and “content.” Dennis and I put in twelve-to fourteen-hour days at the firm, and then we got take-out, had quick sloppy sex on one padded piece of furniture or another, and conked out while looking through condo listings, waking up the next morning with the iPad sleeping between us like a baby.

Dennis is not the kind of man I would previously have imagined myself marrying. He is twelve years older than me and has a receding hairline and speaks loudly, like a game-show host. When I was younger, I’d imagined my- self with the kind of man I’d always dated—the kind who spoke softly and wore faded concert T-shirts and considered himself a feminist and wanted to be a social worker or a public defender. My former boyfriends, collectively, would have disdained Dennis. I know the word they would have used. That word is “douche.” They would have used this word—which technically refers to a clean- ing implement for women’s vaginas, and therefore, when you think about it, is not a word that should be used by genuinely feminist men as an insult—to signify Dennis’s embrace of corporate culture, his lack of shame.

But here’s the thing: all the qualities those boyfriends claimed to embody, Dennis actually did. He was kind. He was a caring, respectful partner. He was honest too: he didn’t pretend to care more about justice or honor than about food or money. And paradoxically, because his own needs were more than satisfied in the food-and-money department, he could afford to meet the world with benevolence. I saw the vigor with which he attacked his pro bono cases: helping a trafficked Serbian immigrant gain asylum, taking down an uptown molecular-gastronomy restaurant that owed its workers months of back pay. Sure, for every evil restaurant owner he took down, there was an evil corporation he propped up. Yet I couldn’t say that he did any less good, overall, than my sour, embattled exes, shepherding their indigent clients in circles through the Kafkaesque bureaucracies of government aid programs. What moral life wasn’tSisyphean, tilted toward failure as much as success? The best one could do, it seemed, was to accept that paradox and try to really fucking enjoy oneself in the breaks be- tween pushing the rock uphill.

I sang “Hand in My Pocket” a total of nineteen times (I counted). Again I had the feeling of asymptotically approaching their meaning, but that meaning remained shrouded, veiled in mystery. What was the significance, anyway, of the song’s refrain? What was one hand in my pocket meant to suggest? To explore this question I tried it myself. I slid my hand into my own pocket while singing the words. Or tried to. But the pants I was wearing—form-fitting cigarette pants from Brooklyn Industries, just formal enough to pass as corporate—turned out to have no real pockets, just little seamed slits meant to resemble them. Cosmetic pockets.

For some reason, this discovery annoyed me. More than annoyed me: it filled me with rage. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why my response to this rage was to jam my hand right into the fake pocket, hard, as I belted out the final chorus: “’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is hailing a taxicab!”

Because I was singing at the top of my lungs, I felt the rip rather than heard it. That quick jab of my hand had somehow torn the entire right-hand front panel of the pants away from the back, exposing the front of my thigh. A flap of cloth hung down like a lolling tongue. In the weird light of the karaoke room, my exposed flesh looked sickly and whorish, pale green and mottled by swirling disco lights.

“Motherfucking Brooklyn Industries,” I murmured, dropping the microphone onto the vinyl couch with a muffled thud.

I hunted through my purse, but it contained nothing helpful: no spare clothing, no safety pins, no adhesive tape, not even a Band-Aid. It was a warm early-fall day, and I didn’t even have a blazer or cardigan I could tie around myself to hide the hole. I had two options: call Dennis and tell him where I was so that he could bring me a new pair of pants, or go out into the world like this, holding my purse in front of me to conceal the torn fabric as best I could.

The choice wasn’t really a choice. Just the thought of telling Dennis where I was filled me with a hot rush of shame. How would I explain it? How would he respond to this evidence of a craziness I hadn’t previously displayed? (“You know what I love about you?” he’d once said. “You’re sexy, but you’re also reasonable.”) I held the flap of cloth close to my skin with one hand, pulled the purse against it with the other, and hobbled out of JoyfulSongTime.

Luckily, there was a Gap right across the street. I limped inside and hunted through the rack of black pants. I quickly tried a pair, ascertained that the fit and style were similar enough, and wore them out, tossing my old pants into a garbage can on the street. As I walked the twelve blocks back to work—now almost late for a meeting with the senior partner—I slid my hands into the pockets of the new pants. Real pockets. The song was still blaring through my head, Alanis’s unmistakable nasal voice piercing my consciousness, and there was something oddly comforting about being able to enact its lyrics directly. I left one hand in my pocket the whole way back to work.

Dennis had no children with his ex-wife. Which is, you know, thank God, right? I thought it might be nice to become a mother someday, a mother to something that began as a formless pink blob inside my body—but I couldn’t imagine becoming an instant mother to a fully formed human child, with preexisting allegiances to another woman who hated me.

When I’d asked him if Carlene had wanted kids, he’d shrugged and said, “Let’s not talk about that, okay? I want them with you.” I tried not to think about the implications of his answer. I tried not to feel as if I’d stolen another woman’s future children.

Carlene was thirty-nine now, not technically too old to become a mother, but old enough to panic about it. I thought I’d seen that panic in her eyes the day we’d first met, at the firm’s Christmas party, before Dennis and I had technically started boning but well into the period when it was clear we eventually would. We were fucking constantly with our eyes, and it was obvious the rest of our bodies would soon follow. There was a palpable un-easy excitement stretched between us at all times, even when we were at opposite ends of the room; when we stood next to each other it collapsed, tightly coiled, into a pulse of sexual energy so thick it short-circuited and stalled conversations. Carlene was wearing a lime-green dress that hugged her Irish curves, and her thick red hair spilled down onto her shoulders. She was an objectively sexy woman. Yet here she might as well have been a medieval eunuch. She compensated by being aggressively friendly to me, stretching her fleshy lips into a strained, overly large smile and saying “That’s so great!” to every innocuous fact I revealed about my life: what college I had attended, what neighborhood I lived in, what particular fitness classes I enjoyed. She sensed that she was on a sinking ship, and wanted to go down with her head held high. I respected her for that. Until I ran into her one day at Starbucks nine months later and she dumped what was left of her latte onto my shoes and said “This is my Starbucks, you ferret-faced cunt.” (Unbeknownst to me, she and Dennis had carved up the city during their breakup, splitting custody of it as if it were the child they’d never had. They each had spheres of influence, where the other could not trespass: Carlene had all the Starbucks south of Thirty-Fourth Street and all Equinox gyms; Dennis had Fairway.)

Walking back from JoyfulSongTime in my new pants, an insane thought occurred to me: I have been cursed. That was a thing in some cultures, right? That one woman could curse another—that her hatred could become strong enough to infiltrate her rival’s conscious- ness, perhaps even her womb? Was it Carlene’s voice I was hearing in my head now, blaring out these stupid lyrics, causing me to rip my own pants? Was it Carlene’s rage that had swept my uterus clean of whatever might have been nurtured there?

I shook my head. I was going bonkers. I pushed the revolving door and strode through the lobby, putting on my game face for my meeting, remembering what I was here for: I was here to defend Bank of America from external litigation, and I was here to make money doing it, and to look damn good while doing it, and you know what, fuck Carlene—if Dennis hadn’t wanted to be with her anymore, there was nothing I could have done about it. Some forces are just impossible to fight.

Not that I had tried.

That night, while I stood at the kitchen counter pouring us each a glass of Pinot, Dennis came up behind me and slid his hands into my back pockets, cupping my ass. “Hmm,” he said. “I like this. Wait, are these new?”

“No!” I cried, a little bit too loudly—so loudly that I startled myself and spilled the wine all over the granite countertop. “Oops,” I said, leaning away from Dennis to reach for a paper towel.

“Really?” he said. “I’m sure I haven’t seen these before. I’m sure because I notice your ass. I spend a lot of time noticing your ass. Full disclosure.”

“I don’t wear them a lot,” I said, laying paper towels on the spill, watching them bloom blood-red. “They’re old.”

“Well, you should wear them more often,” he said, turning me around to face him and sliding his fingers down into the front pockets. This action filled me with an inexplicable panic, and I twisted away from him. “The thing is,” I said, reaching for the two now-full glasses of wine and handing one to him, “I actually hate these pants.” I was surprised by the way the word “hate” emerged from my mouth: I practically spat it out, with twisted vehemence. Softening, I rushed to explain: “It’s just something about the material. It kind of itches.”

Dennis’s eyes widened. “Okay,” he said, shrugging. “Then don’t wear them. Your ass looks good in other things too. Your ass looks good in everything. Here.” He set his wine down on the counter, without even taking a sip, and began to unbutton the pants. He nuzzled his lips into the crook of my neck and murmured into my ear. “If you hate these so much, let me help you out of them.”

What kind of woman stands in the kitchen of her Upper West Side apartment, sipping from a glass of ’97 Pinot while her handsome rich fiancé slides her pants down and begins to slowly, expertly eat her out, and finds herself distracted by a dumb midnineties song she doesn’t even like?

’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving a high five.

It was too much, the cognitive dissonance of it. “You know what I was thinking?” I said, reaching down and lightly tugging on Dennis’s ears to disengage his face from my crotch. “About the wedding. I know the caterers suggested that roast chicken. But, you know, chicken at weddings…I mean, have you ever had wedding chicken that was really compelling?”
He looked up at me, brow furrowed. “Compelling?” he said.
“Yeah.”
“You’re interrupting cunnilingus to discuss whether a piece of food you might eat in six months will be compelling enough?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling him up to his feet, leaning into him and planting a kiss on his neck. “I’m just in a weird mood today.”
“What’s up?”
“I don’t know. Wedding planning, I guess.”
He sighed. “Listen, Chris,” he said. “I’m dying to marry you. But, and I hate to bring this up, but I’ve beenthrough this before. I know what a wedding does and doesn’t mean. I want it to be a fun party. I want you to be happy. But I really could care less about how compelling the chicken is.”
“You mean you couldn’t care less.”
“What?”
“If you could care less, that means you do care. What you’re trying to say is that you don’t care at all.”
“But that’s what I said.”
“Never mind.” I sighed. “Do you mind if we just go to bed? I’m tired.”

That night I dreamed I was being chased by some shadowy creature through the crowded streets of the city. It had no face, or discernible body parts; it seemed to be covered in some kind of fringe that flap-flap-flapped as it ran. I ran up Fifth Avenue, over to Columbus Circle, back down Seventh; as I turned left, toward my office, I could feel it drawing closer, its moist cottony breath against the back of my neck. I turned and saw what the “fringe” was: the monster was made up of hundreds— possibly thousands—of pockets, covering every inch of its surface, all turned inside out, flapping sadly against its side like used condoms.

“This is what happens,” said the monster, in Carlene’s voice, “when you turn yourself inside out.”

I screamed again, and my scream woke me up.

The song was still blaring through my brain, louder than ever.

That day, on my lunch break, I did not go to JoyfulSongTime. Instead, I walked downtown, to the elemen- tary school near Gramercy Park where I knew that Carlene taught fourth grade, and sat on a bench outside the fenced-in schoolyard. I nursed a large iced coffee and waited, though I wasn’t sure exactly what for.

The children playing in the schoolyard all looked Nordic and robust and well cared for, dressed in snug fall jackets and brightly colored sneakers, whooping and cackling and running in circles. About 75 percent of them were blond. I could just imagine them, these chil- dren’s blond mothers, prancing down the sidewalks like thoroughbreds in their Lululemon yoga pants, their bodies bearing no marks of childbirth (perhaps some of them having even avoided the ordeal entirely by transplanting their blond eggs into some brown woman’s body), still trophy wives long into their supposed middle age, when they’d send their blond children off to elite blond univer- sities with a faint blond wave.

After fifteen minutes, I’d finished my iced coffee and was considering getting up to leave—what was I doing here, anyway?—when she emerged from the side door of the school, leading her own class out into the school- yard: Carlene, her long red hair swept up into an elegant twist at the back of her head, wearing a pretty dark- green sweater-dress and excellent brown leather boots, her hand on her belly.

She looked about six months pregnant.

I needed to leave, but I couldn’t bring myself to get up. For the moment, my head was thunderously silent: no song, no internal monologue, just the pounding of my blood and the pulse of one monosyllabic question:how?

I sat there watching, unable to even think about moving, unable to think about anything. I just watched Carlene, transfixed. She shepherded the line of children out into the schoolyard and then set them free, walking over to join the group of teachers chatting and patrolling from the sidelines. I watched her laughing, making conversation with the other teachers, periodically resting a proprietary hand on her stomach or leaning down to respond to the question of a child tugging on her dress. She looked radiant, like an exceptionally well-dressed Earth Mother, not anything at all like the sour, embittered woman who’d dumped a latte onto my shoes a year earlier.

Yet when she turned in my direction, I couldn’t help myself: I got up and fled, walking away as fast as I could, before she might recognize me. Meanwhile the song started up in my head again, loud as ever.

“I was just wondering,” I asked Dennis, later—we were on the couch, about to dig into a takeout artisanal pizza strewn with artichokes and arugula, then turn on The Daily Show—“have you heard from Carlene lately?”
“No. Why would I have heard from Carlene?”
“I don’t know. I was just wondering about her for some reason.”
“Why?”
“I just, you know—I guess I feel bad about it sometimes.”
“So do I.” He frowned, for just a second, before his face rippled back into its usual expression of masculine serenity. He shrugged. “But what can you do? We weren’t happy. We hadn’t been happy for a long time. And then I met you.”
“Do you think she’ll get married again?”
“I hope so.” He sighed. “You remember, I had coffee with her when you and I got engaged—I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else. She seemed fine. Took it well. I didn’t get the sense she was with anyone, though.”

It seemed impossible that Dennis would not have heard of Carlene’s pregnancy, but if he had, he had no reason not to share it with me. I had to conclude that he genuinely didn’t know. This made me feel slightly crazier, as if I’d imagined the pregnancy, or as if it somehow existed for my eyes only.

Why didn’t I tell him what I’d seen? Would it have cost me anything? Maybe not, but somehow I couldn’t think of a way to bring it up without explaining the whole train of insane logic that had led me to the bench from which I’d observed his ex-wife—the song, the possible miscarriage, my crazy idea of a curse. None of it made sense to me; how could I explain it to another person, even to him?

Especially to him. Dennis was so passionately logical. That was one of the things that had initially impressed me about him. He loved to argue, but not in the blustery overblown way that many men do; he’d listen to your argument, nodding with deep comprehension, making you feel that you’d never been more closely listened to in your life. Then he would pronounce one sentence, with the cadence of an announcement, and the coolness of its refrigerator-crisp logic would make everything else fall away; it was like taking a shower at the gym next to a model-thin woman and suddenly becoming aware of your own flab, qua flab. Initially, when I first met him as a summer associate, this quality of Dennis’s had intim- idated me, made me feel wobbly and diffuse. But then it took on a sexual edge; it was a turn-on for both of us when he demolished me like that. I was a very smart per- son, I was a good lawyer, but next to Dennis my own way of thinking seemed intuitive, impressionistic, full of curves. It was oddly flattering to both of us when we argued, this sexualized inscription of difference. Yet lately, when he’d cut through some cellulitic worry of mine with the scalpel of his logic, I’d felt exposed, diminished, vaguely lonely. Why was there so much of me I had to explain? Why was there so much of me?

“How did you know?” I heard myself asking.
“Know what?”
“That you weren’t happy. With Carlene.”
“What do you mean, how did I know? If you’re not happy, you’re not happy.”
“But you stayed with her for a while after that, right? After knowing?”
“I guess so. Sometimes it takes a while to fully admit to yourself that you know something. Or it takes something else coming along. Something better.” He squeezed my thigh.
“And what if I hadn’t come along? How would you have known then?”
He frowned. “What are you getting at?”
“I’m not getting at anything. I’m just curious.” “Don’t be curious,” he said, leaning over and kissing my neck. “Just be happy. I’m happy.” His hand was still on my thigh; now he slid it up further. I thought of the moment in the karaoke room when my pants had ripped, when my thigh had been exposed to the swirling greenish disco lights. It was this part of my thigh he was touching now. I was suddenly saturated with a self-disgust so thick that I actually gagged. “I don’t feel so good,” I said. “I think I might just go to bed.”
“What about the pizza?”
I looked longingly at the box, steaming fragrantly on the coffee table in front of us, not yet opened. Its tomatoey, herbed aroma filled up the room. I wanted it, but not as badly as I wanted to be alone. “I think it might make me barf,” I said. “I’m just gonna go lie down.”
“What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing. I just don’t feel well. Stress, maybe. The change of season.”
He smiled. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”
“Of course not! Dennis, I just got my period, don’t you remember? I went home from work. You gave me a back rub that night.”
“Calm down,” he said. “Of course I remember. I’m joking.”
“Don’t joke about that, please.”
He held up both palms. “Sorry. I guess you should go to bed.”
“I’m going.”

From the darkness of our bedroom I could still smell the pizza, could hear the TV crowd’s muffled laughter, could sometimes even hear Dennis laughing along with them, as if everything were just fine. It was odd, experiencing this all from the outside: hearing the sounds of our life, smelling its smells, without participating. Was this what my life would be like, without me?

•••

The next day I went back to the elementary school again. I sat on the same bench, sipped an iced coffee from the same Starbucks, waited again for Carlene to emerge.

She did, at the same time as she had the day before: today in nicely tailored dark jeans and a kind of maternity peasant blouse, her red hair down around her shoulders. I strained to glimpse the presence or absence of a wed- ding ring, but I was too far away.

As I had the day before, I watched her walk over to the group of teachers, chatting while keeping an eye on the children’s antics. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, what I had hoped to see, beyond confirming the truth of what I’d observed yesterday. I was just about to get up and leave when she turned in my direction—then paused, squinted, and stiffened in recognition.

I raised a hand weakly in greeting. She murmured something to the teacher next to her, let herself out the gate in the chain-link fence, and strode over to the bench where I was sitting. She looked down at me, hands on hips, as if I were one of her errant students. But she didn’t exactly look hostile: more like wearily patient, as if she’d been expecting this moment for a long time.

“I was just in the neighborhood,” I said. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

She sat down next to me, arranging herself on the bench, resting a hand lightly on her belly. “Somehow,” she said, looking straight ahead, “I find that hard to believe.”

“You look . . . great.”

“Thanks,” she said, turning to face me, with a smile so large it must have been involuntary and genuine. “I’ve al- ways wanted kids. And so when, you know—I thought, fuck it. I’ll do it on my own. And I have to say, it’s already the best choice I’ve ever made, and I haven’t even met the baby yet.”

Usually, when pregnant women say that they’re excited to “meet” their babies, I want to vom. As if the baby is already this fully formed person with opinions and a per- sonality, who they’ll finally get to sit down and have coffee with. When my sister’s was born, we all made this big fuss about the arrival of a new person, and then the new person turned out to be not a person at all but a wrinkled, larval sac of bodily fluids. There was nothing to “meet.” Yet when I heard Carlene use the phrase, I felt oddly touched. I could tell she really meant it, not as a smug pregnant-woman plat- itude but as an actual description of her feelings.

“Everybody’s rallying around me,” she continued. “I have more support than I would have if I’d stayed married to Dennis. Dennis was never home for more than five minutes. You know?”

I did know. That morning, when I’d awoken at six- thirty, he was already gone. He liked to get to the office before anyone else. He was one of those people who barely rest, who view the need for sleep as a faintly pitiable quirk.

“That’s great,” I said weakly. “I’m happy for you.” I was surprised and oddly disappointed, hearing the words come out of my mouth, to realize that they were true, or at least could be true. I could suddenly see Carlene in a detached, disinterested way; we had nothing to do with each other. I might have stolen her husband once, but what difference did that make, now? She was happy. I hadn’t stolen her future babies, and she hadn’t stolen mine. Even if such a thing were possible, she had no reason to curse me.

Realizing this, I should have felt free, but instead I felt weighed down more heavily than ever. Because, if the psychic explanation for my malaise did not involve Carlene, whatever thing was attacking me had come from some other place: some place that was harder to define, harder to assign a location outside of myself.

“Thanks,” said Carlene. She frowned again. “So why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I honestly don’t.” I stood up. “I have to run,” I said. “They need me back at work. I’ve got a meeting in half an hour.”
“Okay, but—”

I didn’t hear Carlene finish her sentence, because I was already walking away.

I did not walk back to work, though. I hadn’t been lying about the meeting, but I just couldn’t go back there right now. I couldn’t be around all those people who thought I was this one thing when I felt like this other thing. Something was pounding through my head, an almost unbearable pressure, something independent of the song, though the song was still there too, now starting to skip like a broken record: ’Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one, the other one, the other one . . .

I went back to JoyfulSongTime, paid the teenage at- tendant, accepted the sparkly tambourine. But when I finally found myself alone in room 6, I didn’t pick up the remote and punch in a number. Instead I just pulled my knees in close to my chest, rested my forehead on them, and began to sob.

A karaoke room in the middle of the day is a great place to cry, because you can be completely alone. It’s the last place anyone would expect to find you. Even if I’d been home, I would have felt more exposed, among all the objects that used to be my own and which I now shared with Dennis, intermingled with the objects that had once been his and Carlene’s, and the objects we had purchased together. Here in room 6 there was nothing personal, only binders full of songs cataloging the variable and yet endlessly predictable permutations of human feeling. Here my privacy was the most common, clichéd thing in the world. Here I could safely turn myself inside out.

I cried for half an hour straight, and then my Black- Berry started to buzz. It was Dennis. I was late for the meeting, of course. I let it buzz until it died, and then it started buzzing again. Then a text came through: Chris are you OK?? I’m worried about you. Fuck the meeting. Just tell me where you are.

I hit the reply button, then stared down helplessly at the device. Was it even possible to tell him where I was? Where was I?

When Dennis found me, I was lying supine on the long padded couch in room 6, my hands at my sides, like a corpse. I wasn’t crying anymore. I was staring up at the ceiling, at the swirling pattern of lights that spangled its surface; yet my focus lay elsewhere, on something beyond the visible.

What I was focused on was the silence. When I had finally stopped crying, my head was blindingly clear, like a landscape blanketed in snow. The song was gone. Everything was gone—except this silence, like a taut tightrope across which I now had to navigate without losing my footing. I couldn’t be distracted. I felt a clarity that was wordless, without reference. It had no message. It wasthe message: a tight humming blankness that belonged to me, that demanded my attention, that demanded everything.

I heard the door open. I heard Dennis come in. I heard him speak my name. I did not reply, or turn my head to acknowledge him.

I knew that I would have to speak soon, that I would have to tell him some things. What I didn’t yet know, what I hoped that the silence would reveal to me, was just how many things there were. And also: would he be able to hold these things, to cup them in his palms and accept them—or would he hand them back to me, impenetrable as mirrors, mine and mine alone?

He sat down next to me, his expensively suited butt squeaking on the cheap vinyl as he settled himself. He said nothing. He took both of my hands into both of his. I tried to pull them away, but he held them tighter. Then he looked up at the ceiling, where I was looking, and waited for me to speak: so patiently that it was like he wasn’t waiting at all, like he was simply watching the miasmic patterns of the disco lights as if they held great interest, sanguine about whatever mysteries or banalities they might reveal.

I opened my mouth and heard myself begin to speak. The sentence I spoke was not the one I had planned. What I said was “I’ve lost something.”

“What?” said Dennis, gently. “What do you mean, baby? What have you lost?”

I had no idea how to begin.

Attrib. and other stories – Eley Williams

I should start with a confession: I love Eley Williams’ work. I’ve loved it since ‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ was shortlisted for The White Review Prize in 2015. It’s a story I read repeatedly when I was trying to work out whether my own writing was experimental or not and it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s not even the best piece in Williams’ debut collection.

Williams’ stories are primarily concerned with three things: language, love (in many forms) and animals. These three things are woven together in almost every story.

The collection begins with ‘The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)’. The plot of this is not and will not be obvious begins the narrator. It’s such a bold statement I wonder whether it’s an intention for the collection. With regards to the story, it’s because the narrator has aphasia.

I completely lost it (the plot, not the glasses – they’re only mislaid) about two weeks ago around the same time that I mislaid you. If you were here you would make a filthy joke about my use of that word, about you being miss laid. Scratch that, then. Screw it or unscrew that work out of place. Two weeks ago is when I lost it – the plot – round about the same time that you were not mislaid by me but were misplaced. When you misplaced me. Two weeks ago is when we ceased to converge by the bedside table, beneath the sofa, by the fridge.

There’s a point towards the end of this piece where I’ve noted ‘There’s a real emotional oomf in this’, the loss of not just words but a lover, the two tied together as though they would be the worst two things to happen at the same time, which, for a lover of words, they just might be.

Williams uses a lot of humour in her work. The set up for ‘Alight at the Next’ is funny in itself: the narrator wants to ask their date to come home with them. They’re just working up to the speech they’ve composed to deliver in time with the slowing motion of the train

when the doors are opening and you are standing closer to me than you ever have, and I have been counting, and measuring, and the doors have opened and

 / / a man / / pushes on / / to get inside / / the carriage / / before I’ve had time / / to step down

so without thinking and certainly without hinges I am holding out my hand and placing a finger in the middle of his forehead.

The rest of the story takes place while the narrator holds the man by his forehead, preventing him from embarking.

As for the animals, well, look away if you’re an animal lover…

In many ways my workplace is the loveliest in the whole country. They are still songbirds, after all, even when they are screaming in the pot.

so begins ‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’. In ‘Bulk’ a whale’s body is washed up on the beach; in ‘Mischief’ we encounter a rat trained to detect landmines, and in the final story of the collection, ‘Spins’ (shortlisted for The White Review Prize 2014), a spider weaves its web in the corner of the room an hour after the narrator’s lover has left them. A tip for beginners: spiders are not great conversationalists.

Williams’ work is clever, funny and thoughtful without being pretentious but what makes Attrib. and other stories one of the best books I’ve read so far this year is the huge beating heart at the centre of it all. There were points in some of the stories where I was so willing the narrator on in their quest to connect with someone that I found I couldn’t breathe. It’s a sign of a great writer when they can make you care so deeply about an unnamed fictional creation. Williams is a great writer and I have no doubt there’s even better to come from her.

I interviewed Eley about the collection, the state of the short story and completing creative work as part of a PhD thesis.

Did Eley insert a made up word in her collection?

You can buy Attrib. and other stories from Amazon and Waterstones or support your local independent book shop. If, like me, you don’t have one, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Eley for the interview and to Influx Press for the review copy.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.

The characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World will come as no surprise if you’ve read her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel Eileen. The people who populate these tales are inappropriate, slack, liars, cheaters, sleezeballs, hypocrites – they are us.

Two stories – ‘Bettering Myself’ and ‘Slumming’ – are narrated by teachers, those bastions of standards and rules and betterment. In ‘Bettering Myself’ which opens the collection, a teacher at a Catholic school keeps a sleeping bag in the back of her room to facilitate naps when she’s still drunk from the previous night; considers one of her students to be a friend, and avoids teaching calculus by talking about her sex life. While ‘Slumming’ is set in the holidays when the narrator goes to live in Alna, a poor town where she owns a summerhouse. There, she eats a footlong sandwich divided in two – one half for lunch, the other for dinner; takes ten dollars’ worth of meth or heroin, depending what’s on offer in the bus-depot restroom three times a week, and occasionally hangs out with Clark who looks after the summerhouse the rest of the year. They slept together the first year she was there, ‘me crouching under the sloped ceiling, his genitals swung in my face like a fist’.

It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them. I was tired. During the school year, all I did was contend with stupidity and ignorance. That’s what teachers are paid to do.

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Many of the stories are concerned with the behaviour of men. Mr Wu is in love with the woman who dispenses the tokens at the arcade he frequents but doesn’t know how to speak to her. While he makes a plan, he visits sex workers in the city, averting his eyes when he has sex with them because ‘He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love’. In ‘A Dark and Winding Road’, the narrator escapes to his parents’ cabin in the mountains following a fight with his pregnant wife, ‘to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was ruined forever’. There he discovers a dildo underneath the blankets on the bed and an unexpected visitor.

Probably the best piece, if you were to judge each story alone, comes in the middle of the collection: ‘An Honest Woman’. A young woman meets her 60-year-old neighbour, Jeb, over the chain-link fence that separates their gardens. Her partner’s recently left her, while Jeb is widowed and has a nephew about the young woman’s age.

‘I’ll meet her,’ said the nephew. ‘But I’m not saying I’ll take her out. I don’t need any drama.’

‘What drama? You should be so lucky,’ Jeb said. ‘A sweet gal. Comes with baggage, of course, as they all do.’

‘Kids?’ the nephew asked. ‘Forget it.’

‘No, no kids. Emotional issues, more like,’ Jeb said. ‘You know women. Stray cats, all of them, either purring in your lap or pissing in your shoes.’

The story takes a creepy turn when the woman visits Jeb, waiting for his nephew but a storm prevents his arrival. Moshfegh highlights the irony of Jeb’s statement about women quoted above when she has him behave as an entitled, misogynistic white man.

It’s at this point in the collection that Moshfegh’s aim starts to become clear: this is a collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. To pull this off and maintain the interest of the reader is quite a feat and Moshfegh does it with style. Her prose is sharp, nailing thoughts, feelings and the messiness of life, love and sex – of which there is plenty.

This an accomplished collection. Every story is worthy of inclusion but there’s something about them taken together which really is spectacular. Ottessa Moshfegh is a remarkable writer.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Difficult Women – Roxane Gay

There’s an easy way to find out whether or not you’re a difficult woman according to the title story in Roxane Gay’s debut collection: check your pulse.

Dead Girls

Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at peace.

Although still not safe from the patriarchal gaze.

Societal structure and its oppression of women forms the backbone of the collection. Beginning with ‘I Will Follow You’ in which two sisters – Carolina and Savvie – whose relationship is so close that when Carolina’s husband moves to Nevada and Savvie doesn’t want to go, they remain in California together. And ending with ‘Strange Gods’ in which an unnamed narrator tells the man who’s asked him to marry her ‘There are things you do not know about me. These things are not inconsequential’ before relating the various ways in which she self-harms and the reason for her behaviour.

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When Gay’s good, she’s very very good. In ‘Open Marriage’, the narrator eats a tub of sour yoghurt to prove a point as her husband declares he wants an open marriage. The payoff is delicious and had me punching the air.

‘Requiem for a Glass Heart’ details a relationship between a glass woman and her stone thrower husband. She wants space from his protection, from her husband ‘who sees too much and loves too carefully’ but discovers he seeks his own space too.

‘I Am a Knife’ and ‘The Sacrifice of Darkness’ both involve women dealing with tragedies. The first has a wife hunting with her husband, attempting to fill a void:

When the buck was finally dead, I used one fingernail, cutting the creature open from his neck to his rear. His flesh fell open slowly, warm innards steaming out into the cold air. The air became sharp and humid with the stench of death surrounded by prayer. I am a knife.

While the latter is a rewriting of the Icarus myth focusing on what happened after Hiram Hightower, a miner who couldn’t face another day underground, flew into the sun, as told by his future daughter-in-law:

In the early days of darkness, we thought it might end. We thought we might once again see the sun, feel its golden shine holding our skin. The bright red crease in the sky pulsed, and like the sun, that crease grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared. Scientists tried to make sense of what happened to the sun. It was nearly impossible for them to believe a man could be so full of darkness he needed to swallow all the light of the sun.

Thematically, the stories are about relationships – with spouses, siblings, parents, lovers, ourselves; male treatment of women; whites’ treatment of blacks.

In ‘North Country’, an engineering lecturer moves from Nebraska to Michigan and has to deal with constant microaggressions.

“Are you from Detroit?”

I have been asked this question twenty-three times since moving to the area. In a month, I will stop counting, having reached a four-digit number. Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa.

However, ‘La Negra Blanca’ is the sole mishit. William Livingstone III is obsessed with black women and black culture. He visits a strip club where he watches Sierra, a mixed-race woman who passes for white, dance three times a week. The story lacks any subtlety and is less effective for it. It’s a shame in a collection which also highlights how sharp Gay can be elsewhere in her writing.

Overall, Difficult Women is a satisfying and, at times, a superb read. It’s impossible not to read these stories and feel that Gay gets it. She conveys what it’s like to be a living, breathing woman. The title story is divided into different types of difficult women and then into vignettes. ‘What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street’ ends like this:

She once told a boyfriend about these considerations and he said, “You are completely out of your mind.” She told a new friend at work and she said, “Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

 

 

Ones to Read in 2017

One of the joys of running this blog is getting to read advance copies of books I’ve been looking forward to as well as titles from new writers being published in the first half of 2017. I’ve read a whole host of books, mostly fiction – novels, novellas, short stories, and I’ve selected ten I think are must reads.

All publication dates are correct as of 2nd January 2017 for UK publication.

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Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Effia Otcher and Esi are sisters, unaware of each other’s existence. In 1775, Effia’s mother, who beats her and is manipulative, conspires to marry her to one of the white slave traders. Effia goes to live with him in Cape Coast Castle, unaware that Esi is in the dungeon, packed tight with other women – alive and dead – waiting to be shipped to America. Gyasi then follows the two women’s timelines through to the present day. The story alternates between West Africa and America, each chapter told by one of the offspring of the previous character in that branch of the family tree and becoming a guide to the creation of black as a race. It’s an incredible piece of work. If you only read one book in 2017, make it this one.

Published 5th January 2017 by Viking

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Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

If you thought the title character in Eileen was despicable, wait until you meet those who populate Moshfegh’s first short story collection. From a teacher who spends her summer break slumming it with drug addicts to the old white dude who tries to hit on his young neighbour to the girl who’s convinced she needs to kill a particular person in order to go to a better place, all of Moshfegh’s characters are unlikeable in some way. But that’s also because they’re real, their lives like ours. And that’s the beauty of her work. This is a brilliant collection; Moshfegh’s rapidly establishing herself as one of the best writers of her generation.

Published 12th January 2017 by Jonathan Cape

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First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties, is married to Edwyn, an older man. She documents their turbulent relationship alongside an earlier reacquaintance with an ex-boyfriend and the relationships she had with her mother and father. All are manipulative and abusive in different ways and to varying degrees. Riley’s writing is razor sharp. She places the reader in Neve’s position and it never feels less than real. Packs a literal and metaphorical punch, leaving space for interpretation and discussion.

Published 2nd February 2017 by Granta

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The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

As the sea-level rises around the UK, a woman gives birth to a boy her and her husband name Z. They leave for the mountains where her husband, R, grew up. Before long, queues are forming for food and basics and the family starts to disintegrate as R mistrusts the authorities and the unnamed narrator wants to protect Z. Taut, beautifully written, this tense novella will keep you gripped. I read it in one sitting and returned to it the following day.

Published 18th May 2017 by Picador

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Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Queens, NYC, 1965. Ruth Malone’s in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband when her two children Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, go missing from her apartment and are later found murdered. When the police discover Malone drinks, dates and takes care of herself they’re determined to pin the murders on her. A page-turner which explores patriarchal attitudes to women who don’t play the angel. Rage-inducing but gripping.

Published 12th January 2017 by Picador. 

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Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

When Yejide fails to conceive, her husband, Akin, is convinced by his mother-in-law to take a second wife who will deliver the grandson she so desperately desires. Yejide is horrified at becoming a first wife and Akin feels little better about the arrangement but it will change both of their lives and their marriage for better and for worse. Told from alternating points of view Adébáyò explores the effect of patriarchal society on women and men with thriller-like pace and twists. Gripping and thoughtful.

Published 2nd March 2017 by Canongate.

cover1Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

If you enjoyed the BBC’s To Walk Invisible over Christmas, or can only name two of the Brontë sisters and their work, or have long been a fan of Anne and are glad someone else gets it, then Samantha Ellis’ investigation into who Anne Brontë was, her work and why we know so little about her is one for you. Ellis examines Anne through those who were closest to her and her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Anne Brontë reassessment/revival begins here.

Published 12th January 2017 by Chatto & Windus

 

Difficult30644520 Women – Roxane Gay

Third mention for the ‘p’ word but the women in Roxane Gay’s short story collection are only difficult because they break the rules the patriarchy imposes on them. Often they’re punished for it though – from the sisters who are kidnapped to the stripper followed home by a client – and question their worth to society. Written in clear, brutal prose, Gay shows how race, class, sexuality and gender affect average women every single day.

Published 3rd January by Corsair

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The Things We Thought We Knew – Mahsuda Snaith

Ravine Roy has chronic pain syndrome and hasn’t left her mother’s council flat since her best friend, Marianne, disappeared ten years ago. Now she’s eighteen, her mum’s determined to get her out, starting with voting in the General Election. But Ravine’s got other things to worry about such as writing to Marianne, wondering who her mother’s companion is, and the noises coming from the unoccupied flat next door. If you loved The Trouble with Goats and Sheep or My Name Is LeonThe Things We Thought We Knew is your summer 2017 read.

Published 15th June 2017 by Doubleday

4111fppgtel-_ac_ul320_sr198320_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Schmidt takes the infamous case of Lizzie Borden and explores what might have happened on the days surrounding the murder of Borden’s father and stepmother. The narrative moves between Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man called Benjamin, unknown to all but the Borden’s Uncle John, their late-mother’s brother. Schmidt creates a claustrophobic atmosphere placing the reader in the centre of a house stifling with heat and tensions. Gripping.

Published 2nd May by Tinder Press

Two Short Story Collections – Tania Hershman

Jersey Festival of Words begins this Wednesday – hurrah! I’ll be flying out on Thursday and coverage of events will start on here on Friday, although I’m sure I’ll be doing some tweeting before then. As final preparations happen, I’m covering short story collections this week beginning with those of Tania Hershman.

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Hershman has published two collections, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012). Part of what she does is combine science and creative writing, often in interesting and less obvious ways than you might expect.

Many of the stories in The White Road were inspired by pieces in the New Scientist. Hershman begins these with a quotation, showing where the idea came from. For the title story, it’s one about the completion of a road to the South Pole. Hershman imagines the ‘Last Stop Coffee’ place, run by the story’s narrator, Mags.

Today is one of them really and truly cold days. You’re probably thinking cold is cold is cold, either everything’s frosty or you’re sipping margaritas by the pool in Florida, but let me tell you, there are degrees of freezing.

Like many of the characters in both collections, Mags’ tale is one of loss and longing. It’s also notable, in The White Road in particular, that many of Hershman’s women break stereotypes: there’s the bride who lifts her husband over the threshold, the woman who had to give up studying physics and now makes scientific cakes:

The Sun: chocolate cake ball made in Christmas pudding mould, orange icing with brown smudges for sunspots, angel hair spaghetti mesh for the solar clouds, blue-dyed pasta as plasma shooting out from the solar storm.

The woman on a first date on a spaceship:

‘I’ve heard of men being hard to pin down,’ said Agnes, ‘but this is ridiculous. Didn’t you read the gravity section in the manual?’

Bill floated helplessly above her.

The woman who plays roulette and the one who knows how to keep a secret. If you’re wondering how some of those break stereotypes, you’ll have to read the stories!

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While The White Road is an enjoyable, varied and interesting collection, for me, My Mother Was an Upright Piano is where Hershman really finds her voice. The book is a collection of fifty-six flash fictions ranging from a paragraph to two or three pages. The scientific theme continues but is often less explicit than in The White Road. This leads to more experimental pieces and often an element of magical realism.

He meets a girl, it could almost be an accident, the way she slides into him, tips his cheek with her elbow, makes eyes at him, his whole body quivering, noticing her. It could almost be an accident, at a bus stop, or a train station, or the line for the launderette change machine, or an ice cream vendor, or someone making fresh crêpes, the egg swirling, hardening into solid substance. It could almost be an accident but it isn’t; this is what she does. She is a spy, The Devil pays her well for sliding into him, tipping his cheek with her elbow, making eyes, and she slips the cash into her bra, not trusting pockets, knowing how easy it is to finger ways inside, like electricity, and extract.

There are some fabulous single lines:

When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid.

“If you sell your soul, can you buy it back later, even if it costs more?”

 A wonderful piece about Art (and science?):

We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out.

 Which makes an interesting contrast with this woman’s story:

She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

Hershman also writes perceptively about relationships. In ‘my uncle’s son’ the narrator realises:

I did not know then that sometimes you just need to give and keep giving until you pull the other person with you, until they are pulled over the edge and you are flying together.

And in the title story, music becomes a metaphor for passion:

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

The stories in this collection are a joy to read; when they really work – which many do – they soar. Hershman’s skilled at creating a whole tale in a very short space. She has a third collection coming early 2017 and I’m already eager to read it.

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Tania Hershman appears at Jersey Festival of Words with poet Jo Bell, Saturday 1st October 5pm in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Daughters of Decadence and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This week, my favourite publishing imprint (for obvious reasons) Virago is reissuing the short story collection Daughters of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited by Elaine Showalter. The collection includes stories by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Mew and Constance Fenimore Woolson, amongst others. Possibly the most famous story included is feminist classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Rather than cover the whole collection, Virago asked whether I’d focus on this one story and, having last read it as an undergraduate student some twenty years ago, I’m delighted to revisit it.

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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is narrated by an unnamed woman. She has moved, along with her husband, John, into an ‘ancestral hall’ for the summer whilst work is carried out on their home. The house is cheap and has been uninhabited for some time which leads her to believe ‘there is something queer about it’. Her husband disagrees. He also disagrees with her when she tells him she is ill.

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

[…]

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

Not two pages in and already I’m furious at Freud – he’s got a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s views of women. Did someone mention the patriarchy?

The narrator goes on to describe the room which they’ve taken for their bedroom. The room was her husband’s choice – ‘I don’t like our room a bit’ – and she’s particularly perturbed by the wallpaper:

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur in others.

No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

As the story progresses, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, convinced that there are two different patterns to it and that they change with the light. Then she discovers there’s a woman behind it, trying to get out…

Two key things I haven’t mentioned yet are – one – that the narrator is a writer but her husband and her sister-in-law disapprove of her pursuit. She writes the story in snatched moments, hiding her work when one of them enters the room. By making her a writer, Gilman highlights how women have been denied their own voices and the right to tell their own stories. Two – that the narrator is a mother. It’s four pages into the story before she mentions the baby and we never see him. Here the possibility that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression is raised. Why don’t the men in her life consider this? At the time the story was written it had only recently been recognised as a condition. Also, why would a new mother be depressed? Having a child is what women are made for, isn’t it?

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ considers the merits of the rest cure and finds them lacking. It looks at the feelings of entrapment women experience trying to survive in a patriarchal society which dictates their emotions to them, tells them what they need and expects them to conform to marriage and motherhood without protest. It’s an incredibly powerful story and one that continues to resonate more than a century after it’s initial publication.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

The Greatest of These – Part Four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon

An absolute treat today: part four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I loved the novel, which I included in my Ones to Read in 2016, and will review it in full next week. The story – ‘The Greatest of These’ gives a real flavour of the novel in terms of introducing some of the main characters, the tone and the themes. If you haven’t seen parts one to three, a list of all the places the story is appearing is below.

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Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’

‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.

‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’

‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’

Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.

We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.

Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.

It was Tilly who noticed him first.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’

We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees. He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.

Tilly put up her hand to wave back.

‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’

‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.

And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.

His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

He said he was stuck.

‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’

Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.

‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.

Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.

‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.

Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’

‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep