Confession: I first came across Peter Jordan’s writing a few years ago and became an instant fan. I have been eagerly awaiting his debut short story collection, Calls to Distant Places (Kingston University Press). Peter’s prose is pin sharp and uncluttered – it’s no surprise he’s a fan of Raymond Carver – and his use of imagery creates unforgettable scenes with filmic qualities. The quality of the writing is evident right from the first page. ‘In Magazines’ (originally published on the Word Factory blog) gives us a powerful snapshot of the moment when a war photographer meets a dying young man in Afghanistan: ‘I needed something I could sell. Something human.’
The collection includes a satisfying mix of longer short stories, rich with layers, and punchy flash fictions. The stories vary in tone and subject, the settings spanning the globe from New Mexico to the Middle East and Donegal. And while this is quite consciously not a themed collection, there are recurring ideas: the impact of war on the human mind, the vulnerability of addiction, the way people act when stretched to their very limits. These are stories that dig deep, and as such, they read as authentic experiences.
‘Luna’, set in the confines of a captive orca’s pool, is a brilliantly tense story about the relationship between Luna and her trainer, whose trust in his ‘star attraction’ is tested during a routine exercise. We discover that Luna bears a grudge after the loss of her child: ‘Seated there on the bottom of the pool, he looked into her eye. She refused to return his gaze.’ This story was awarded second place in the prestigious Fish Short Story Prize. ‘Gutshot’ – a personal favourite, first published in FlashBack Fiction – is a story about a Civil War soldier’s encounter with a white buffalo; the word count may be small but it’s a piece that resonates well beyond the page.
Other highlights of the collection include ‘Untouchable’, which is mesmerising – apt, really, for the tale of a Dalit snake catcher, called in to help a grieving couple whose only son has been killed by a king cobra. ‘The Vallon Man’ explores the impact of PTSD on a wounded army sergeant with a score to settle – the ending, though I don’t want to give away too much, is quietly devastating. In fact, many of these stories take the reader to uncomfortable places, right into the thick of the action.
There is also humour to be found. ‘Plastic Jesus’ follows the story of unlikely travel partners Floors and Crow and is told with a light touch. ‘Latin, Olde English, Celtic and horseshit’ is a wryly funny story about a Donegal community’s response to an unexpected arrival: ‘When the crowd arrived at the bar, everyone wanted a drink; even members of the local Alcoholics Anonymous group.
We’ll build a museum.
You mean a zoo?
A theme park.
Ten euros entrance.
I also loved the moving ‘There’s No Place Like Home’, with its Wizard of Oz references and war-damaged protagonist. It’s the last story in the collection, and the ending provides the perfect final bow.
Calls To Distant Places is a book to read and re-read, by a skilled short story craftsman. You may need to scrape your heart off the floor by the end – but take it from me, it’ll be worth it.
Emily Devane, a teacher and writer, lives in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Her stories have been published widely, most recently in Ellipsis and The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology. Emily won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2017 and was a Best Small Fictions Finalist. A former Word Factory apprentice, she last year won a Northern Writers’ Award for her short story collection-in-progress. Emily is on the editorial team for historical flash fiction literary magazine FlashBack Fiction.