Series editor NICHOLAS ROYLE
(My previous reviews of this writer are linked from HERE)
(My previous reviews of this publisher are HERE)
Featuring stories by: David Rose, Hilary Mantel, Lee Rourke, Leone Ross, Claire Massey, Christopher Burns, Adam Marek, SJ Butler, Heather Leach, Alan Beard, Kirsty Logan, Philip Langeskov, Bernie McGill, John Burnside, Robert Edric, Michèle Roberts, Dai Vaughan, Alison Moore and Salley Vickers.
I hope to gestalt real-time review this book over the next few months in the comment stream below…
Continued reviewing this whole series of anthologies from here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/best-british-short-stories-2017/
Tantalisingly, the first story below (just read) resonates with the last story in the 2017 edition: Language by Daisy Johnson, with letters marked on edges and appendages added when stretched out for reading, and even more tantalising things like a sharp lozenge shape pressed into the ground … and so utterly tantalising, other connections keep escaping my nailing them down.
“I confessed to a slight hurt that she hadn’t said goodbye.”
I don’t know how this miracle works, the miracle being that it works without being a miracle. A sharp ended word, that. A page-turning tale, in more ways than one, about a botanist coincidentally continuing to find the same younger woman also studying botany in various places. She ends up using his library at home, at his invitation. A few times she is accompanied by a man she knows, one with a pony tail and an anklet. We can only infer the male botanist’s motives in allowing these strangers loose with his valuable collection of illustrated botany books, the titles of some of which we are allowed, as onlookers, to know. We can’t see the pictures inside each book, though, in the way that the characters can. Nor can we fully understand all the emotions and thoughts of those concerned (the reader’s included?) although one or two of them seem clear. Even inference may not be enough for some of the emotions and thoughts at the outer edge. We need the miracle of vestigial branches on our brains to do that?
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/david-rose/
“We dress for the weather we want, as if to bully it, even though we’ve seen the forecast.”
A shortish Mantel-piece (but to know it’s relatively short before getting to the end may in itself be a spoiler) about an English couple arriving at the airport for a foreign holiday, then met by a local taxi-driver with a placard bearing versions of their names…
Not a shortish journey by taxi, though, to the hotel – even when halved by an incident. I shall resist doodling thoughts further upon it.
“Like he’s smoking an imaginary cigarette, you think.”
Perhaps the thought of spending the rest of my lifetime doing Gestalt Real-Time Reviews is like going to work every day in a regimented office job and then trying to create meaning from all the bits and pieces, directions of walk, colleagues, screens, routes out, floors counted, deadpan motives doodled-with and then inferring things by its smoke and two mirrors.
Love Silk Food
“The dumplings lack squelch and bite — they come out doughy and stupid, like grey belches floating in her carefully salted water.”
This story flows disarmingly like that all the way through, in my mind, with a pervading poignancy of life lived for its own stoical sake and for the various geometrical shapes of the kids you produce. And more of this book’s deadpan motives,
We also find out what silk food really is. Pap for a sharp-edged kid. Or at least a GrandPap fresh off the plane at Heathrow,
This is the story of a middle-aged black woman in London, came here long ago, often travels to and from Heathrow on the train just to watch other people. Unconsciously tries to be one of the Excitement Girls that leave their smells from underneath her husband. Given a Christmas cake, by strangers, or is it a Christening cake because they thought she doesn’t have a name? But that’s not the point. You need to read this gem for that. It may not even be in it at all.
Dumplings as the new crisps…not excitement girls but…
“He opened the crisps, split the foil of the packet and pulled it apart so they could share.”
This is surely a classic short short and how have I not read it before? The accretive ‘I’ll get my coat’ in both directions of travel, as it were…
Can’t do it justice here.
My review of this author’s BIRD DOLL: https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/452-2/
Those crisps today became national news, in contradistinction to a three course meal!
Another review today of Claire Massey story: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/murmurations-edited-by-nicholas-royle/#comment-12060
More feather girls.
“All that was a long time ago and it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes it’s different.”
A second classic in a row, I gauge. This one about those who return (or do not) to their loved ones, from the various wars we unbrutish British have fought for whatever causes in the last fifty years or more. This one is a man to his wife, although I sense something far more poignant and telling than what lies on the surfaces of photos or memories. Each soldier a representative of another, across the generations, even across enemy lines. Here he has his hair cut by his wife before being sent back beyond the scope of present concerns… the ironic inverse of this book’s earlier deadpan adding of things to things in valuable books.
“‘He looks just like you used to look,’ she says.”
Dinner of the Dead Alumni
“Preston falls all the way down her and leaves his breath at the top.”
Now, this is both potentially hilarious and breath-taking, the latter literal not figurative. I say ‘potentially’ advisedly. A scenario of Cambridge amid the student punters and college porters, plus the ghosts of past students, some as themselves, famous and legendary scholars who populate our philosophy and other text books and annals of literature. Threaded through by ordinary people of today, including excitable identical twin girls, their mother, and their tall lumbering father with his blood-excited divining-rod ready for instantaneous orgasmic dowsing, a sexual release by the one he sees as his legendary perfect match, a woman whose name badge says Kelly, suddenly spotted across an Apple store (the electronics, not the fruit), a woman whom he avidly pursues through the streets. The result is messy. I feel sorry for his wife.
Meanwhile, the authorial provision of a reviewer’s decoy, in the shape of a wooden mallard, diverts any doubts.
My later review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2013/#comment-12025
“She is so hot.”
Which is an interesting contrast to my own real-time as I read it, with rare red weather snow warnings besetting the country. Also an extreme contrast likewise with the previous story’s excitable events as well as its floating student punters and its wooden mallard. Meanwhile, I feel this is an exquisite portrait of a girl leaving her desk to devote, almost sacrifice, herself to the river’s countryside currents, strong or gentle as they may be. I can actually feel that I am her, absorbing the same tactility of her swimming experience. And her eventual recurrent relationship with a stylishly moving swan, so much larger than as portended by being on the bank watching it instead of in the water with it, and so potentially feisty, dare she involve herself deeper with it, daring the old tales of its strength. I felt this creature was a symbol of my Winter today seen through the window… as if I need to rescue it from itself rather than from the tangled nets of global warming that caused such extraordinary currents of weather…
“Her thoughts pull to and fro like overworked dough, a sticky grey mess of deadlines and undefined anxiety.”
“The writer, like a swimmer caught by an undertow, is borne in an unexpected direction. He is carried to a subject which has awaited him – a subject sometimes no part of his conscious plan. Reality, the reality of sensation, has accumulated where it was least sought. To write is to be captured – captured by some experience to which one may have hardly given a thought.” — Elizabeth Bowen
So Much Time in a Life
I hope the author, editor and publisher will forgive me quoting more than normal from this incredible, if relatively brief, work. Not only to give a flavour of it that I cannot otherwise give you, of its fiction nature as mother itself of the children in it, but also to demonstrate the amazingly preternatural connections with another book and with the fact that I HAPPEN to be simultaneously reviewing that other book here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/20/the-ammonite-violin-others-caitlin-r-kiernan/
This Leach work in itself is a poignant, ground-breaking take (take, literally) on the nature of motherhood, and of human interactions waiting for your kids at the school gates.
“Fiction is an evasion, a way of stepping out of your own life and into another’s, of making things work out, connect, make sense.”
“, we’ll have webbed feet next,” (cf also the previous story in BBSS2011)
“Fashionably cross-gender without being in your face butch.”
“…while the other, my seal-girl leans against me, my arm safely around her.”
“When is the moment when she becomes I? Is this it?”
“I gave her back to the sea inside me, folded her in, like a seed, a pearl.”
No similarity in story between this work and those in the other book, but there is, I feel, a wonderful kinship. A connection that bolsters me yet again in my confidence about the worth and unknown powers of gestalt real-time reviewing, whether I do it or someone else does. (See also: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/06/08/synchronicity-rampant/)
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“His keyboard makes him spell the simplest words wrong. Worsd. Apicrot. Grils.”
This is like this book’s earlier Emergency Exit but now in pathetic baroque overdrive, as we follow Jack, old enough to have danced at parties to the Beatles when they first started singing, now in the ‘dying fall’ – and sneaky, messy masturbations in a room of the office nobody else visited – of his tedious office career (latterly learning new computer programmes) – and surveying his life, his wife, his daughter’s hopeless hapless husband and Jack’s own attempted visionary dream or life-size projected actuality or minia(furni)ture meticulousness of a dolls house he has been making for his daughter and now his granddaughter as if forever – all of it writ in a relentless flow of hilarious sorrow and knowing turns of phrase that shift about in the reading head observational-engagingly…insidious-empathetically, too, most of the time, sad to say, though saying it’s sad to say is another high compliment that I am giving to its having summoned such emotions in you in the first place, even though you didn’t really want them summoned at your time of life anyway. Sob.
“— he has a stoop now from somewhere, the age of him, the curl of death coming up from his toes already —“
The Rental Heart
“Will taught me about Boudicea, the golden section, musical intervals, Middle English.”
And this story taught you much else. Including how to choose a heart to match your latest lover. Strangely and ironically complementary to this book’s earlier instantaneous orgasms by the merest touching of each other. Or the dolls about to inhabit the previous story.
An engaging real-time fitting of your own latest imagined new heart to a compliant, word-beating text.
My review of Kirsty Logan’s later story in Nightscript: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/nightscript-4/#comment-13920
Notes on a Love Story1
“WG Sebald is good on how things can come to us when we least expect them:”
This one has several geese as its single swan or wooden mallard – geese in an area where I was born and live now, the Essex of Colchester, and its natural environs, the bits that God doodled, I always think, in an idle moment without thinking, like Him adding bits to things like in this book’s first story and now there are numbered footnotes whence the arch Gestalter can serve his purpose in garnering the actual story of fate and chance in two things: the creation by this narrator of love with Sarah and his writing career, deftly conveying the evolving characteristics of each towards the final paradoxically hopeful diminuendo. A footnote is always just a tad above the level line of the words, looking down.
“, ‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘the night you swallowed the two-p bit?’”
This is serendipitously like Foreigner filtered through fiction’s paying back now what it once took in So Much Time In A Life towards a Rental Heart. It is a poignant, nicely detailed, affectionately scolding or teasing way to look at your life through the prism of close family revenants and the way they not only give much to your own still living life as well as the past they shared with you but also give at least a tuppence bit to their own lives once lived and to what they might have missed or done wrong (or did right when you thought they did wrong!) Like someone who missed going to a theatre during their life but now going to one while a revenant.
All of us no angels. Forever.
“‘But, Rob,’ she said, after a moment. She always felt strange when she said his name. It was like repeating a lie.”
Oh, what a story! It is poignant, cruel, and wryly affirming. I do not remember what gender mores were like at the beginning of the Tensies when this story must have been first published, but it takes on a new light today, no doubt, with this wife and the coercive, abusive husband. You have to grit your teeth, in more ways than one, when reading about it. And the powder-blue mouse and pasta shapes as objective-correlatives like this book’s earlier swan and wooden mallard and removable or renewable hearts. I decline to divulge to you the nub of his particular abuse that he deals out to her in this particular story’s incident. A terrible abuse that could be turned on its head and deemed thoughtful and kind, thus probably the ultimate cruelty imaginable. My secret, yes, notwithstanding any coagulated fluff left uncleaned under my bed.
“, she got scared whenever Gary Oldman was on the telly. It didn’t matter what film he was in. She got so scared, she could feel it in her chest and throat, like a scream she couldn’t get out.”
(I had the pleasure of meeting this author during the 1990s at the launch of Nicholas Royle’s anthology THE EX FILES, in which I was proud to have a story.)
“He says, Mary, you don’t know arsesholes from Tuesday.”
…or from any other mark on the paper, I guess, punctuation or not. This is a story I would not have missed for a month of Sundays being added on to the end of my life. It is that special. Perhaps I was meant to pick up these earlier anthologies just for a second Mantel-piece, this one, and its scuffling chickens, and the comma itself, a cocoon out of Lynch’s Eraserhead, perhaps, or another version of Burnside’s powder-blue slut’s hair mouse or fox. The Le Grand Meaulnes feeling tinged with Aickman, but here the feeling is that of a couple of eight or nine year old girls, with sun blisters, allowed to roam the countryside, one of them at least expecting slaps in the later school of life, told the nearest drink is an iced lolly down the road, picking at the skin then through to the past and arriving at the future or now the house,
Cross-referenced today with IT by Adam Wilmington here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2014/#comment-12346
“…and the insulated near-double images of his window with its blistering, shrinking view of everything beyond.”
This somehow reminds me of the second Mantel-piece just read. But there is no reason why a captivating, possibly a bit Ballardian, adumbration-as-story would make me think that, but it’s just a feeling I, too, have faulty fly-filters through the windows of my reading. The morphing distance to the nearest mountains as viewed from my apartment, the haze or strata of embedded flies or possible global warming or cloud-eraserheads that form a new clogging fluffball as if born from the previous two stories, the moving feast of loved ones with whom I once lived in this apartment, vanished as if bird-like angels flown from this very tall block of apartments, where the top and bottom ones are inhabitable. And the now untouching (apartment, literally?) relationship with an old friend, a man accompanied by his smug apprentice. I am indeed captivated to the extent I can’ t leave this story without leaving a little bit of me behind in it. The little bit that might understand it. Leaving perhaps just bracketing commas…
“, these lazy and uncaring erasers drawn over those clear blue skies,”
Tristram and Isolde
“Deeper and deeper into the wood we went. Sometimes a jay started up, or a magpie flapped past, or a lime-green parrot turned over in a tree like a leaf. Doves and pigeons cooed out of sight.”
A lushly musical and natural Gaia of a story with Wagnerian leitmotifs, but here they are fleeting and tend to lead you astray, where Wagner meant to identify characters with leitmotifs in his music, in a helpful way. Wagner, though, did not know his own strength, a strength also to lead others astray in a different way. Here the loving couple are not what they seem. The narrative viewpoint wants a new dance between cooker and sink, if I recall correctly, or between branch and antler, between human hair and animal fur. A work where the child has the power to abuse the adult, not vice versa. I was suffocated by it, not gently swaddled. Cooked, not cooed. Pungent, tactile and ultimately conniving with forces the author had not recognised herself before allowing herself to be connived. A little birdie told me this, I sense, out the side of its beak. And taught me that lushness and love are not necessarily what they seem. Or another child eraserhead?
Cf the footnote story.
”On the stone mantelpiece sits a cracked glass dome which, he supposes, would once have protected an ormolu clock from the gentle perils of domesticity.”
And a painting he salvages from one of the war-torn houses abroad and takes back across the waters to Blighty. A painting as a poignant ‘lost Meaulnes’ objective-correlative for his post-soldierly life towards retirement and beyond. The language is like shredded lace sometimes and is always perfect for itself. We, as readers, like the lawyer wanted to do, finally take the painting, whatever its deemed value as keepsake or considered Art, as our own from this story for each life we live. But do we salvage or loot it?
When the Door Closed, It Was Dark
“Tina, scrubbing at the pig blood and rinsing away the pink foam, with the taste of lard on her tongue and the sting of the cleaning fluid at the back of her throat, felt queasy and light-headed.”
An English au pair girl in an inscrutable foreign country, deals with not only the baby but the family of quick natural instincts close to their own flesh and livestock, and she is gradually subsumed by their ways and suspicions. A spiritual claustrophobia of immanent imminence and teetering shatter, but of what? The only way to escape claustrophobia is even more claustrophobia? You may not even escape this cloying story’s grasp. Or just another version of inviting someone into your house, trusting them as in FLORA, from the point of view of Tina’s employers? Or more slut’s hair to erase, comma. The aniseed balls,
My previous reviews of this author’s work: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/alison-moore/
“The road was as familiar to his feet as to his mind. Maybe more so; the body has its own memory.”
A very touching coda to this book. A man in a fishing-seaside-bordering countryside with bus stops and passing pissers. He is a budding actor caught hereabouts, and we gradually learn of his mother, stepfather, grandmother and now newly discovered blood father. An obsessive almost bodily homing-yen for self, whether eventual disappointment or fulfilment of his image of that father, here met at the end of a bus route. I will not tell you of the revelation as to all the circumstances, as that would spoil it, but it somehow resonates with the nuclear family in that foreign country of the previous story, resulting in either that story’s representative of a finally dropped dour destiny or this story’s potentially caught box of chocolates from a daredevil hero parachuting back into your life? Either way, death never changes, only the body’s road towards it.
In due course, I shall continue my real-time review of this series of anthologies here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2012/
All my BBSS reviews linked from here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/best-british-short-stories/
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