The lyrical short stories in Emma Timpany’s Three Roads span time and space – they take place in the UK, France, Australia, and in the author’s native New Zealand/Aotearoa, and unfold in both the present and in the remembered past. These are stories about place and memory and the fragile strangeness of human connections.
The collection’s title comes from the heart-rending story ‘Three Roads’ in which thirteen-year-old Sissy, whose father died some time ago, is staying with family friends while her mother is away. Out of the blue, Sissy’s appendix threatens to burst and she is admitted to hospital. However, Sissy is entirely abandoned in this crisis: the friends entrusted to look after her are more concerned to get to a dinner party, and Sissy’s mother is in no hurry to come home. Sissy has to endure her illness alone and afraid.
Later, Sissy comes to read about the Roman goddess Trivia, who was both protector of unmarried girls and associated with the place where three roads meet (tri-via):
According to her father’s old dictionary of etymology, trivia had also come to mean a common place or gutter. It seemed strange that the word’s meaning had changed form the name of a goddess worthy of the gratitude of every girl who made it safely through the perilous years of childhood to a word used to describe things of small value, of little importance, insignificant things.
It’s an apt image for Sissy’s situation: her illness is a crossroads in in her life, which pushes her harshly onto the path to independent adulthood. But it’s also a moment that is disregarded and seen as trivial by those who should have cared for her.
These are ideas which echo throughout the collection – several stories explore how teenage girls navigate the strange and sudden transition to womanhood, often through small experiences and encounters that go unnoticed by others. In addition, many of the stories seem to speak to the ways that people of all ages navigate the ordinary turning points in their lives: the moments they set out on new roads, or when they realise that they are lost and don’t know where to turn, and how they sometimes find their way home again. I think it’s rare that a collection of short fiction hang togethers thematically as well as Three Roads does – as I read, I kept coming back to Trivia and her crossroads and seeing new layers of meaning in the stories.
Like ‘Three Roads,’ the story ‘Peregian’ is also about a teenager – Kelly – who is away from home. In this case, Kelly is staying on the Australian coast with her aunt, uncle and cousins. (And, as in many of these stories, we sense the weight of an unspoken history, a possibly troubled past which has led to Kelly’s visit.) While taking a walk, Kelly and her younger cousin become lost on the beach, unable to find their way back. It’s a small moment, seemingly trivial, but it underlines Kelly’s precarious position in the world, and we sense that something has shifted and changed forever. Similarly, in ‘Over the Dam,’ young Amy and her family take a trip to a garden centre to collect a tree to plant at their new house, but a series of disconcerting encounters leaves Amy unsettled. As the family drives home ‘along the road that would lead them back to the new house,’ Amy wonders ‘why could she not shake off the feeling that they were somehow lost, that they were now travelling in entirely the wrong direction, that they were on their way to anywhere but home.’ Both stories thrum with unspoken tensions, regrets and conflicts that are never quite articulated – they are masterclasses in subtle, understated writing.
I loved this kind of laser focus on adolescence in ‘Girls on Motorbikes’ too. This story portrays the charged friendship between Rainey and impetuous, charismatic Edie – whose ‘beauty, at fourteen, causes boys anguish. Grown men, too…’ and who (Rainey speculates) will always ‘trail this sense of imminent apocalypse, not for herself but for those who dare to follow in her wake.’ In the span of a few pages, we are plunged into the world of this teenage friendship, with its heady cocktail of possibility, trepidation, envy and desire.
One of my favorite pieces in the collection, ‘Impressionism,’ also explores female friendships. In this story — which is addressed to ‘you’ (the friend) — the narrator remembers a past encounter with a seemingly kindred spirit. She recalls ‘the fluency of our first meeting, that silky, exciting conversation that flowed like water […] I said to myself, I’ve made a new friend.’ However, despite this promising start, the friendship soon falters. The women’s second meeting is awkward and tongue-tied. Although the narrator has thoughtfully prepared tea and cakes for the occasion, the visitor is standoffish and uncomfortable, apparently unimpressed by the narrator and her house – so that the narrator comes to question herself, to wonder if her warm, child-filled, chaotic family home is in fact simply ‘shabby [and] ordinary.’
Long after this potential friendship has fizzled out, the narrator reflects on ‘what had happened between us, which was nothing of course.’ But as Emma Timpany’s stories reveal, these apparent trivialities are never really ‘nothing.’ This story beautifully notices and names the biting intensity of those encounters which, although brief, might resonate for years afterwards.
In a similar vein, ‘Shepherd’s Bush Blues’ tackles past connections which prove hard to categorise. In this story, a young New Zealander arrives in London and finds a room to let. The UK seen through her eyes is grey and monotonous, her landlord is odd and slightly troubled, and she is haunted by the possibility of domestic violence in a neighbouring flat. When, eventually, she moves on, the story leaves us to reflect on these relationships which have come and gone, which both did and didn’t matter.
There are unusual, fleeting, and lost relationships in ‘Flowers’ too (where a florist comes to know an eccentric convalescent man when she plants a flower garden on his land), and in ‘Like Leaves’ (in which hotel-worker Johnny grieves for Bobby, who has disappeared without a trace). And a need to make sense of ambiguous relationships also drives ‘Error.’ In this story, a man and woman’s comfortable, child-free marriage is thrown off-balance when the man’s daughter from a previous relationship seeks him out and reveals she is expecting a child of her own – the man’s first and only grandchild. The couple have to decide what this news means: are the long-lost daughter and her child ‘complete and utter strangers,’ as the man’s wife suggests? Or is it the case (as he suspects) that there are ‘worlds […] turning on this. Legacies on lives long after his was past’? Like so many of the characters in Three Roads, the man is called to embark on a journey, called to question where he really belongs.
Although Three Roads often explores ordinary and recognisably real-life encounters, not all of these stories are realistic. Several stories seem instead to offer a sort of lyrical or dreamlike interlude – for example the tiny poetic flash fiction ‘Tissue,’ which sits amongst the longer, meatier stories, like a little sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses. Meanwhile, other stories are tinged with magic. For instance, in ‘The Rememberer,’ a woman overwhelmed by domestic life meets a small, mysterious and unassuming man, clad in a short-sleeved checked shirt (the titular Rememberer), who will carry her mental load. She tells him everything that weighs on her mind: all the parties and anniversaries and presents and wrapping paper and thank-you cards she must manage on behalf of her family, all the family’s food-shopping and cooking, the ever-shifting schedule of her children’s activities and dental appointments, the fact that she wants to find time to wax her legs. This offloading is transformative: the narrator has been lost and adrift in in an endless sea of remembering, but by handing over her burden she begins to find herself again.
While these stories offer insights and truths about human relationships, it’s notable that they are equally infused with the wonders of the non-human world. There’s an astute awareness of place and plants in particular – there are descriptions of lush fields of flowers, of grey London days brightened by occasional daffodils, and of beaches where ‘the wind carries the smell of far islands in the Pacific, of ripening fruit and sweet and cloying flowers which open in the morning and fall that very night.’ The big skies of the Antipodes are especially well-portrayed, with their nights that grow cold ‘as soon as the sun goes down, and always the curve of mountains waiting, holding the chill blue air cupped in their palms.’ The settings are vivid, and the natural world serves as much more than a backdrop — sometimes seeming to be a character in its own right.
Three Roads is a beautiful collection of delicate stories. These are subtle tales, but this is not to say that they are uncertain or tentative – there’s a quiet and compelling confidence in Emma Timpany’s writing. The stories here work a gentle magic – they invite re-reading, and I found that on each reading they seemed to shift and reveal more layers, almost as if they had life of their own. This collection adds to Emma Timpany’s previously published short fiction (The Lost of Syros) and her novella Travelling in the Dark (set in New Zealand, and also, as it happens, a story of finding the way home). I look forward to seeing where her writing journey takes her next.
Becky Tipper’s short stories have been published inFlashback Fiction, The Honest Ulsterman, Prole, The Lampeter Review, For Books’ Sake, and elsewhere. She is a previous winner of the Bridport Prize for flash fiction, and a recipient of a Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Award for short fiction.