Review by Kate Jones
The stories here put me in mind of the style of Grace Paley, in the matter of fact way they are written and the way they lay bare the colourful and often sad characters around them. Both writers clearly mined their own lives and neighbourhoods for the people and themes which interested them.
The stories range from Texas to Chile, New Mexico to New York, populated by characters such as junkies, struggling young mothers, and husbands who leave.
There is some beautiful prose in such stories as ‘Andado: A Gothic Romance’, such as the opening paragraph, lyrically describing the mimosa or acacia tree, ‘the softness of the fallen yellow blossoms that carpeted the courtyards,’ juxtaposed against a group of young school girls who ‘filled pens from inkwells on each desk and the nibs made rasping sleepy scratches in their copybooks.’ There is also humour in this story as the teacher is referred to as ‘Fiat, because she resembles a car; short, squat, almost black, with mirrored headlight sunglasses’.
‘Rainy Day’ is a one paragraph story in which Berlin manages to convey the life of a man in detox through first person narrative.
My favourite story is ‘Cherry Blossom Time’, a story of a mother, Cassandra, spending her days in early spring taking care of her young son. It reveals the often repetitiveness and predictability of a young mother’s life, and the despair she feels, whilst also considering herself selfish at her lack of appreciation for her life. The gulf between Cassandra and her husband gapes as she struggles along in silence.
Fans of Berlin’s earlier collection will feast over this new selection of stories, marking the talent of an often forgotten writer.
Evening in Paradise (2018) is published by Picador.
Review by Kate Jones
Although I was hungry to delve into a previously unread Plath story, I also worried at its quality. I often feel that ‘rediscovered’ material may have been better left alone. I had to question whether there was a good reason it had been originally rejected, so soon into Plath’s writing career.
I have to confess: I loved the story. Though sinister in tone, it has the dark humour and cynicism of The Bell Jar. The story features a young woman, Mary Ventura (the name taken by Plath from a former school friend) as she is pushed into catching a train to the ‘ninth kingdom’ by her parents. As with much of Plath’s poetry, imagery and motifs appear in the text, for example, the constant return to the colour red, referring alternately to blood and lipstick.
Mary is befriended on the train by an older woman who feeds her cryptic suggestions of what awaits her in the ninth kingdom, the furthest stop on the line, and informs her, chillingly, that once there, there can be no return journey.
Critics have suggested, somewhat predictably, that the themes of this short story, written just months before Plath’s first attempted suicide, point towards the ninth kingdom as a dark release into oblivion; the result of a mind consumed by depression and the dark tunnel to death.
I, however, felt there was another interpretation; that of the way young women of the time were pushed by society and their own families toward a life of domesticity, conformity, marriage, and a lack of choice as to their destination. All themes of Plath’s later novel and poetry.
Whichever way you read this short offering from the pen of a young, intelligent and conflicted Plath, her talent burns through, assuring that the literary world lost a genius storyteller far too early.
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom (2019) is published by Faber Stories.
Review by Kate Jones
There’s a real, raw honesty about the stories in Curtis Sittenfeld’s new collection You Think It, I’ll Say It. So much so, that I had to question on more than one occasion whether it was a fictional collection: some of the stories read like creative non-fiction.
In short stories, I think it is often the way a tiny space gives a brief encounter, leaving us as readers to debate what may or may not have happened to those characters after the closing words. As a creative writing tutor once put it, the novel is like a whole film; a short story is a scene of that film. Yet, I can only assume this is a writing style which Sittenfeld appreciates, as she uses it more than once. In ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ she switches to a large chunk of information about the main characters, filling in the blanks of what happens off the pages of the story presented, which feels clunky and unnecessary.
That said, the collection is accomplished, delivered from an author more used to producing bestselling novels such as American Wife and Eligible, and earned Sittenfeld a place on The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award 2018 shortlist.
‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ and ‘Gender Studies’ both contain elements of infidelity, and the latter holds political references, as does the remarkably accomplished first story ‘The Nominee’.
Set during Hilary Clinton’s campaign for the White House, it is narrated from the first person point of view of Hilary herself, considering a female journalist whom she has enjoyed sparring with over the course of her political career. She shows a surprising fondness for the woman, though she notes somewhat wryly that she often questions her in a sexist way; a way she claims she would never question a male candidate. The story ends with a note of disappointment, because Hilary believes fully that she will become the next president, whereas we are all too familiar with the reality of that ending.
I found the protagonists of these stories interesting choices, and as with all good fiction, they were not always likeable, but certainly relatable.
Sittenfeld is a young author with an impressive stack of bestselling novels to her name, and following the reading of this collection, I, for one, shall be seeking more of her writing out.
You Think It, I’ll Say It (2018) is published by Doubleday.
Review by Kate Jones
Amy Arnold is the first winner of the inaugural Northern Book Prize. Her winning book, Slip of a Fish, was released in November 2018, published by And Other Stories, an independent, not-for-profit publisher of literary fiction, and the instigators of the prize.
And Other Stories kindly forwarded me an advance review copy of Arnold’s winning book, and it came as no surprise that Slip of a Fish is a bold, brave, artful novel.
Arnold’s prose is linguistically exquisite. Her protagonist narrator Ash collects words, allowing Arnold to tread dexterously between language and its application. Ash is an often unreliable narrator—or perhaps she is too honest—either way, the story is revealed allusively via Ash’s inner world.
We discover through Ash’s inner voice that she has had a sensuous relationship with her female yoga teacher, and these scenes are brought to life with a richness that her outer, real life world cannot convey.
The book is also about motherhood and femaleness, as we see Ash’s relationship with her 7-year-old daughter develop over one hot summer spent at the local lake. As the summer closes in, Ash’s transgressive behaviour begins to slip out of control, with devastating consequences.
Slip of a Fish is not an easy read. It has an intensity and emotional pull that keeps it long in the mind. Hopefully, And Other Stories will continue to publish such innovative, fresh new literary fiction, and this will undoubtedly be the first of more writing from Amy Arnold.
Slip of a Fish (2018) is published by And Other Stories.
Snakes, Swamps, and Mystical Stories in Lauren Groff’s Florida
Review by Kate Jones
‘At the Earth’s Imagined Corners’, the despair of a mother’s feelings toward her husband are palpable, even though Groff tells the story through the eyes of her young son. Witnessing his mother’s metamorphosis into a strong and self-sufficient woman whom he barely recognizes, he tells us: ‘It seemed that the glossed edge of the ocean was chewing her up to her knees… one big wave rolled past her shoulders, and when it receded, she was whole again.’ The young mother emerges from her formerly tremulous manner once her husband is sent to Vietnam. When the father returns, however, the boy is returned to his former snake-filled home on the Florida swamp. The story develops until the boy himself is a father, confronting the ghosts of his past. In this story, as in others, there is a subtle hint of a past fraught with racial tensions.
The Florida Groff brings to life is often claustrophobic and mysterious; a place filled with snakes, alligators, and swamps. There is certainly a snake motif running through the collection.
In ‘Salvador’, Groff evokes a woman in her late thirties, looks fading, who has travelled to Brazil for a month of freedom from caring from her sick mother. There, she rents an apartment and spends her days dressing respectably, wandering the halls of museums and galleries. But her nights are spent seeking young men in nightclubs. She is perturbed by a local shopkeeper, who appears to be watching her, and the story culminates in a storm, another feature of the stories, which completes the closeness and tension of the whole piece.
In many of the stories, such as ‘Flower Hunters’, whereby a woman’s anxiety renders her unable to keep friends or socialize with her family, I wanted more about the characters, sensing a whole novel could develop from them.
One of the longest stories, ‘Above and Below’, tells of a young woman whose boyfriend leaves her and she, being refused more funding for her professorship, hits the road, only to find herself homeless. There are some beautiful lines here, as elsewhere: ‘It was a kind of wealth you didn’t know you have until you stand shivering outside in the morning, watching what you used to be,’ and I read through this story breathlessly, as Groff throws into focus how easy it is to become lost and unraveled.
Florida, where Groff herself resides, provides a sultry backdrop to the stories, and is a character in and of itself. But in truth, they are what all good stories are about: people, and their relationships to other people; how we live and why we do the things we do.
Florida (2018) by Lauren Groff is published by William Heinemann.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer, yoga lover and NHS worker from the North of England. Her essays, reviews and flash fiction have appeared in many varied places, including Spelk, Feminartsy and The Short Story.