Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spoilt for Choice - three new short story collections reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

I’ve just read three new short story collections and it feels greedy. They are all quite different, and yet too, they deal with similar themes, love, loss, convention, modernity, relationships.   I was trying to think what a good short story does – and nourish seems a good word, the idea, that the story leaves you feeling satisfied (maybe disturbed, maybe provoked) but still a sense of substance – the familiar and the peculiar.  

‘Two Girls in a Boat’
By Emma Martin
Published by VUP, May 2013
RRP $35.00

                Emma Martin’s collection with the intriguing title ‘Two girls in a boat’ is dark, dense and suspenseful and a very good read.     The stories are mostly quite conventional, stories we’ve heard before.  But too, they are also original and compelling in the telling.  I read recently on Emma Darwin’s blog, quoting Paul Ashton ‘Plot is the route you take; story is the journey you make.’   It is the journey that Martin excels at.  I found myself right inside all of the stories, at times holding my breath, frequently expecting the worst.   Even the most benign story has a sense of foreboding.  And yet, there are no fancy tricks, no spectacular metaphors, just exceptionally good writing – someone who understands what a short story is meant to do.   And too, although filled with a sense of dread and foreboding at times (quite palpable, my heart racing even)...when I let my guard down and was not expecting it, true tragedy struck.  For obvious reasons, I won’t tell you which story.
                 One of my favourites was ‘Vukovar’ about a young woman hitchhiking in Yugoslavia (perhaps the 70’s) and I loved ‘Victor’ a most poignant story about an older man who protests outside an abortion clinic – two stories beginning with a V that really appealed to me.   The cover is by the very talented Sarah Laing, the slightly incongruous image of two women fully clothed and thigh-deep in water, one with a fox fur around her neck. It lends the collection an air of mysterious modernity. Although, the stories range in era from a father returning from war, to the perennial unwed mother on a bus going out of town, to the title and very contemporary story.
                It is an impressive debut. But having said that, the title story ‘Two girls in a boat’ was published in Granta online in June 2012 and other work has appeared in ‘Sport’ and the ‘Listener.’ I was reminded at times of Charlotte Grimshaw – that deliberate and specific gathering of ordinary and at times random information as it builds and builds seemingly without any particular purpose but there is nothing random whatsoever in this writing – it lures you right in.  The stories are beautifully crafted and   reminded me just how much I love short stories – especially when they are well done.

The China Factory’
by Mary Costello
Published by Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, April 24, 2013-04-29
RRP NZ $30.00

The title story reeled me right in to this collection. The China Factory is about a young woman who goes to work in a China Factory working as a sponger (“sponging off the symmetry lines that the moulds left on the clay cups.”).   She hasn’t told the other workers that this is temporary and that she will leave and go to study in Dublin and even worse, she is so good at her job, she gets promoted.   But the story is also about her distant relative Gus, who is considered a freak by the factory girls, and with whom Mary gets a ride to work each day.  I loved this story and the guilt that Mary feels when she escapes their lives to pursue her own.
                Costello writes with great eloquence of the loneliness within relationships, marriage, old age, a whole host of domestic arrangements, but all imbued with perhaps a slightly new angle, although again, nothing is really new, just the way the story is revealed.       The second story in the collection ‘You fill up my senses’, reminded me of ‘The Bull calf’ by Janet Frame.   ‘Astral Plane’ is an alluringly modern story and the finals story ‘The Sewing Room’ is an old story, a truly Irish, but also universal story, and it breaks your heart a little.  The tension between fidelity, domesticity and the personal journey in a relationship is explored from many angles in this very Irish collection.   Lovely place names like the Burren, the Atlantic Ocean close at hand, characters gone to Canada and Boston, and the shadow of guilt just there on the edge of many stories.    There’s space in these stories for the reader to observe and fill in the gaps - at times a safe distance which doesn’t diminish their impact.  This too is a debut collection. 

The Secret Lives of Men’
By Georgia Blain
Published by Scribe Publications, April 2013
 RRP NZ $35.00

I really like the title of this collection.  The cover too.   These are modern stories, and they are full of interesting ideas.  This not a debut, Blain is a well-known and successful writer who has been short-listed for numerous awards.  Indeed, the sticker on this collection says “Love this book or your money back.”    Blain’s themes are varied and contemporary and interesting.  I enjoyed ‘The Bad Dog Park’, a quirky story about an older man, his sick dog, his sad life and his decision to love – I felt it worked well, and too ‘Mirrored’ which began as quite a clutter and then distilled.  ‘Big Dreams’ had me chuckling, but the characters felt more like caricature. ‘Intelligence Quotient’ has an interesting theme at the heart of it and ‘Escape’ feels like part of a novel with more to explore.                 At times the stories suffer from the clutter of too many characters, and this diluted my emotional connection, particularly in ‘Enlarged+heart+child’ a quirkily named story that didn’t quite come off for me, with characters labelled Bed 1, Bed 2, and Bed 3.
                Many of the stories in this collection feel as if they are ideas for bigger pieces. Some of the stories fail to nail that essential ingredient, a key moment, a core theme, a transition -something that lingers longer than the story itself, something quite simple, but now I can see, actually quite difficult to pull off.   But to be fair, the stories are original, quirky and uncompromising.  I really enjoyed ‘Her Boredom Trick’, three generations, an ailing grandmother, her daughter and the granddaughter.  Although very little happens, it has that ‘after-taste’ of a good story, and finally ‘Flyover’ which held me in its grip.

About the reviewer:
Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington writer and regular book reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.    

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