Waiting for sunshine Christine Johnston

Singularity
Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $32.99,
ISBN 9781869791384

Relief
Anna Taylor
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864735874

These new publications by young female authors appear at first glance to have quite a lot in common. Take the single-word abstract-noun titles. Take the dedications to parents. Take a common preoccupation with family relationships. Both include stories from the child’s point of view – a Kiwi favourite – and, among other topics, stories about allegations of historic rape.

However, they differ in many significant respects and shouldn’t be compared, although it is tempting to see them as Auckland versus Wellington. While the authors are both young women, they aren’t exactly contemporaries. Charlotte Grimshaw at 43 has a decade of well-received publications to her credit, while Relief is Anna Taylor’s first book, which at 27 is a “singular” achievement in itself.

Both books have appealing and interesting covers. Singularity’s arresting image is gritty (the face of a beautiful young woman, who may or may not be alive, besmirched with sand) and serves as a warning, or at least an indication, of what lies within, as does Relief’s front cover image – a diorama, reminiscent of a child’s “peepshow” in a shoe box – in which a single figure stands looking up at a flock of birds.

They shouldn’t be compared because comparisons are odious, but also in this case because with this book, her second collection of “interlinked stories”, Grimshaw is attempting something outside the accepted practice of short story writers. Opportunity and Singularity are hybrids – little bit short story and a little bit novel.

Grimshaw has described her previous book “as a single, unified composition, less a series of stories than a novel with a large cast of characters.” The blurb asserts, “The stories can be read as discrete pieces, yet each also contributes to a unifying narrative.” Is it really that simple? Readers approach short stories and novels differently. If they come to each story expecting a discrete world, they are in for a surprise, which, while clearly not a bad thing in itself, can create some anomalies.

Sometimes the cross-referencing clarifies things. I’d read “The Body” previously in an anthology and found it confusing. In the first couple of pages Grimshaw introduces nine characters (and mentions two more), representing three generations of a family and, even though she indicates the relationships, it produced rather a muddle in this reader’s head. However, in the context of this book the story offers a different experience. Once the reader is clear about who’s who in the Svensson family the story seems more fluent and presents no difficulties.

On the other hand it came as a shock to read in “The Yard Broom”, after a casual reference to a flatmate of her boyfriend’s:

(Angela liked Brad. She was sorry to see him go. She didn’t know she would meet him again, much later, in Auckland, and discover that he had a different name.  That she would end up living with him for most of the rest of her life.)

 

There are lots of things the author knows that characters don’t know, but slotting in (on p21) a quick summary of future developments serves no purpose and shatters the reader’s connection with the present tense of the story. Why include that disquieting aside when in fact Angela plays only a small part in subsequent stories? It’s too much information too soon – a hiccup in a short story or a novel.

Rules were made to be broken, or at least bent, and Grimshaw is breaking new ground by bending genres. The result is what matters and, all things considered, Singularity is a compelling series of stories in which the narrative element dominates. What Grimshaw is attempting – “a single, unified composition, less a series of stories than a novel with a large cast of characters” – is ambitious, and a less skilled writer might have lost her way.

Some characters are well drawn while others come close to caricatures. In “Nymph”, the grotesque Viola, a writer of stories, is pursuing Simon Lampton – a scenario just too similar to what happens in “Trial” when Emily, a journalist and the character central to the whole collection, with whom the reader feels great sympathy, pursues Simon’s brother Ford with personal advances and emails. Are Viola and Emily to be seen as two sides of the one coin? And Viola is writing the story that she’s in. Is Auckland going to Wellington for the day?

In Singularity you find tension, sadness and alienation. Happiness or its potential is glimpsed in family situations, in “The Olive Grove” and in “The Night Book”, where a tough tenderness emerges, resulting in a happy ending – “a feeling of ease”. But there’s grit in every story and one is left with a sense of the toughness of life – children and adults at odds and the devastation wrought by drugs, alcohol and random acts of violence. It’s a grim vision of modern New Zealand.

Anna Taylor’s 11 stories are focused pieces, many concerned with family relationships, some with destructive love affairs. The child characters in “Birds”, “The Dress” and “Working Girl” are well drawn and credible, if not entirely likeable.

The slightly older protagonists – in their late teens and early twenties – in “Michael’s Fasting for Christmas” and “In the Wind”, shown still entangled with parents and siblings, seem younger than their years, petulant and stung by sibling rivalry. Their parents appear grotesque to this reviewer – Dad covering his bald patch with a paper hat at Christmas, obese mother with a back-support brace cutting into her flesh. Grandparents, with the exception of matriarch Nana Jo, are dotty and getting dottier by the minute.

“The Beekeeper” and “Birds” struck me as the most successful stories in the collection, suggesting how this talented writer might develop. In the former story there is a real sense of menace, but the pace is measured. I enjoyed the description of the man who has been tending his bees and becomes the unlikely saviour:

He had moved down the hallway so slowly through that yellow glass; moving towards her in his stark suit, the gauze covering his face. Sitting there, with her limbs still jolting all over the place, she sees it over and over, as if on repeat; the white of his overalls crackling softly, his great masked face, moving towards her like an astronaut, heaving himself across the surface of the moon.

 

“Birds” starts strongly: “I was ten when I realised my father was just an ordinary man and when I realised what that meant, for both of us.”

Harry, the motherless boy-narrator, tells of his father’s love affair with one of the neighbours, Sal Campbell. At the same time he has his “first real crush on a girl”, likewise doomed to failure. Two vulnerable male characters are caught in the maelstrom of sexual attraction, coping as well as their natures allow. The details are put down with intensity and economy from the child’s point of view. Nothing is explained but equally nothing is elucidated. The father remains mysterious, his actions and reactions beyond analysis.

“Birds” concludes the book. I couldn’t help wishing it had come first. “Working Girl” is an odd choice to open the collection.

An even younger and more limited protagonist, seven-year-old Ellie, is developing a special friendship with a neighbour, Mr Fin. Just in case the reader isn’t thinking along the lines of paedophilia, there’s a reference in the second paragraph to an earlier incident with a dubious character in a car and a background news story of a little girl’s murder, which Ellie’s mother tries to keep her from hearing. The summer gets hotter and she spends more and more time with Mr Fin, “working” for him and earning money. She visits him, wearing wet swimming togs while he’s dressed only in his underpants. It was an uncomfortable experience for this reader, waiting for the putative molester to make his move, and one I found ultimately rather distasteful.

This said, Relief is an outstanding first collection. As in Singularity, a dark mood pervades the stories. It might have been the season, but after reading these books I found myself hanging out for a little ray of sunshine.

 

Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer.

 

 

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Posted in Literature, Review and Short stories
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