When luminaries such as JM Coetzee, Ben Okri and Kwame Dawes provide glowing reviews of a writer, it’s safe to assume you’re in good hands. Elleke Boehmer’s credentials certainly lend gravitas to her output. Boehmer is the current Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and is a leading academic light on the subjects of race, post-Colonial history, Black writing and female studies. She’s the author of five novels, including Screens Against The Sky and Bloodlines, both shortlisted for prestigious prizes. Her non-fiction includes the bestseller Scouting For Boys and a biography of Mandela. As CVs go, not to be sniffed at. To The Volcano, Boehmer’s second collection of short stories, suggests her run of award-winning books is unlikely to stall in the near future.
There are twelve stories in the book, rich in allegory, spare and elegant in prose. Immediately apparent amongst the riches available to the reader are Boehmer’s beautifully managed changes in tone, which shade her characters all ends of grey. Secrets stumble from the darkness, the past is drawn from everyday moments like blood from a dolorous strike, and decisions hover in the air, observant, waiting to impact. We are invited to examine the necessity of memory, the impact of change and the often hidden truths we refuse to tell ourselves. All these and more are present from the first story in the collection, ‘The Child in the Photograph’.
Luanda is an Angolan student who finds herself in the cloistered, buttoned-up world of academia in England, adjusting to the culture and delighting in the discovery and importance of the differences between her and her fellow students. Written with a knowing eye, the first half of the story reads like the heady days of Freshers’ week. An air of positivity and possibility breezes through her days. She laughs and jokes a lot, goes to parties, brushes off overtly institutional racism as if she’s going to ride it out with little issue. The mood shifts in one sentence, ‘By November, Luanda is exhausted’. Previously half-hidden truths bubble to the surface. Darker paths of indecision, loneliness and the struggle for acceptance weigh heavy. Heavier still is Luanda’s struggle to break out of assumed life choices for something approaching more than survival. The story’s quiet crescendo is both sad and hopeful. Optimism has dwindled; distance wins. Luanda’s failed experiment is only leavened with the thought of a reunion at home to bury the scars. All this in less than sixteen pages. It’s a template Boehmer returns to frequently throughout the book, snapshots of seemingly small lives burdened with the everyday, but in such a way as to emphasise the inevitability of things, to say ‘these are our lives; how do we live them?’
A sense of displacement and the lack of belonging run through ‘South, North’ too. Lise travels to a Paris she knows only from the books of her favourite authors and a map that confirms her expectations – ‘It’s Paris, really Paris, here, all around, in every direction…’. As with Luanda, there is a sense of excitement, of new doors opening and ambitions fulfilled. Lise steps through the language in her mind, applying it to her location; le metro, Ile de France, Rue de Rivoli. A wonderful sense of child-like naivety imbues the opening passages, summarised by Lise’s ability to ignore her own lack of travel experience in the hostel she arrives at, taking herself to bed instead; ‘It’ll be morning in less than a minute, she tells herself.’ All will be okay.
Once again, the tonal shift is marked. The next morning, Lise walks for hours in the city she has dreamed about, searching for the locations from the books she has read. They are always just out of reach. The combination of tiring limbs and inclement weather begins to dull her experience. When it starts to rain, her dream-Paris is washed away. What remains are the dun colours and stale smells of a major city – ‘There is a slick but ashy feel to the pavements, as if the drizzle had turned granular.’ The bold boulevards and market streets of Zola’s Little Africa, the Goutte d’Or, become instead a disappointing discount shop where Lise takes shelter from the rain – ‘..the same kind of shop she’d find in the small mall at home’. The reference to such homogeneity is a sharp reminder of how difficult it can be to truly find ourselves somewhere different.
What is real and what is perceived? Lise harbours the optimism of a fan, following in the writers’ footsteps without acknowledging to herself that one of the books she carries, L’Assommoir, describes the area of Paris in question in terms not far removed from Dickensian London; industrial, full of manufacturing. What is it Lise hopes to find?
A genuine fear of the expectation gap – another strong theme in the collection – rises through the second half of the story and manifests in the attention of an unwanted stranger and the assistance of a security guard. Just when speaking French might assist her, Lise is unable to, widening the crack between her hopes of fitting in and reinforcing what she really is, a visitor. Une cheville carrée dans un trou rond. Her concluding thoughts bounce between the comfort of home and a belief that she has achieved what she came for, though this rings hollow. Her final, almost desperate use of ‘merci’ feels like a reprieve for everyone involved.
The title story exaggerates these tonal changes. Once again the reader is presented with a situation that on the surface appears ordinary. In Carver-esque prose, a group of teachers organise a field trip to a local geographic highlight, the dormant remains of a volcano. A sense of excited collaboration ensues, each teacher generating ideas and enthusiasm among their colleagues.
‘The plans were in place by the time the Marie biscuits and coconut-ice slices were eaten. They pinpointed Friday week. Sid contacted the coach company before he went home that afternoon. Bob phoned the college principal who straight away gave his blessing. Eddie put up a poster on the history noticeboard calling all interested students.’
The energy created in the opening passages is infectious, which makes the mood change, occurring almost as soon as the party arrives at the volcano, all the more delicious.The narrative flips on its head. The group, initially so in concert, driven by a unified objective, splits along faculty lines and wanders in different directions into the caldera. Suddenly, all is misdirection and uncertainty. ‘Three parties went into the crater, and four returned…’ We could be in Conan Doyle’s Lost World, peering through a jungle curtain at a barely recognisable landscape, something suspended, at odds with the outside. ‘The weirdest thing was, we all immediately lost each other…’ The party return from the journey in subdued mood, changed by the day, their certainties messed with. It affects them differently; one decides to declare his love to another with mixed results for both, the only truth left to them to accept that something happened that they can neither deny nor understand.
In ‘Evelina’, the subject of the title wrestles with expectation management and anxiety. Like Lise, Evelina finds herself in a bubble of her own making, taking regular trips to the local airport where the noise and movement acts as both a method of tuning her own worries out and her link with people who take the next step and actually travel somewhere. ‘It made her happy that she could be included in their ambiente, though she wasn’t required to say a word.’ Evelina has never travelled anywhere, but is supposed to be following her boyfriend to New York and a new life. She’s waved off two good friends and the airport visit has become a habit. If she can make it through customs, all her worries will disappear. Or will they? What compels her to sit and watch other people getting on with their lives – is it the need to be seen, despite being largely invisible to the passing crowds? Does she need to prove to herself that she exists without the need for others to justify her existence?
A partial answer lies in her admittance that the best part of the trip is when she leaves the airport for home – ‘…her own private regreso, coming back to the city after her airport coffee. This she liked the most. Sitting at the airport and then coming home again.’ It’s still a journey. You feel the change Evelina experiences, but on a micro scale, occurring more in Evelina’s head than in the skies. Once again, the anchor is home, or at the very least, somewhere the protagonist is familiar with. This story is beautifully observed, the restraint in the language mirroring Evelina’s inability to take a decisive step. It’s in marked contrast to the instinctive nature of Boehmer’s characters earlier in the collection, those like Luanda and Lise who took the journey and are now living with the consequences. Change, it seems to say, isn’t easy. What’s more, it is inevitable. Like LeeAnn, the narrator of ‘Synthetic Orange’, we sometimes only realise what’s changed long after the trigger point has occurred –
‘I remembered my first swim of the holiday, off our grey beach, a night-time swim under a pitch-black sky. I struck out into the inky dark waters and instantly lost my bearings… Suddenly I noticed the street lights on the Gran Via were beginning to sweep past at speed, or I past them, as if I were caught in a moving train.’
How we cope with our own identity and the impact of split-second decisions also fuels ‘Blue Eyes’, the most overtly political/personal of the stories in the collection and one that does more than most to link back to Boehmer’s previous fictions, in particular her debut Screens Against the Sky. Two young Rhodesian boys, fresh from the end of war, take up delayed places at university and find the re-introduction to civilian life more difficult than they thought it would be. John takes up with an uninhibited music student, who deals with his nightmares in the dark and spends hours rehearsing Debussy and Chopin during the day. The other, Mick, quickly feeling like a spare part, moves out of the girl’s apartment into one with other Rhodesians. Their sudden split highlights the bond they had previously. An emptiness settles in their lives. Set adrift from their original purpose, haunted by their brief time in the army and the huge change that hangs over the country, they are unable to cope with civilian life. The promise of an Independence party offers an escape, but escape in this instance is to go home, or further – ‘…to Cape Town or even farther – Tristan da Cunha… Gough Island, South Georgia, Tierra del Fuego, places so far away they sound like myths.’ John isn’t sure going home is the right move, but it’s a start – ‘He can’t find the song he wants. In fact he doesn’t know what the song is.’ How can we sing the words if we don’t know the tune?
The quality level never dips, and Boehmer’s eye for small detail is consistent throughout. In ‘Powerlifting’, Police officer Kay is blindsided by a visit to a suspect’s house that she believes closely resembles her own, right down to the strained relationship the mother has with her son. It’s a lesson in how we see ourselves and our possessions in someone else, how we recognise change even if we don’t recognise what the change is.
Cultural barriers are foremost in ‘Supermarket Love’. Farhana the shelf-stacker fights her upbringing with a crush that reinforces her religious beliefs even as she wants to let them go. She is caught between two very different worlds and wanting to be part of both, reminiscent of Lise, Evelina and John in previous stories. That we impose barriers upon ourselves, even when lifting them might free us. In the beautifully sad ‘Paper Planes’, a grandson and grandma communicate using paper planes and their combined imaginations, until the latter is seized by the urgent need to remember the moment.
These stories document one of the base human conditions, our feelings toward belonging and the magnetism – attraction and repulsion – of home, what it does to us and what we do without it. Home can be a safety valve, reassurance, but it can also be the reason for escape, a tie that binds; a rabbit hole to fall down. Home as an anchor is both good and bad, the steadying, immovable influence or the weight that drags us down. For those for whom home might be nothing more than an idea, something that forces beyond their control has destroyed or re-shaped, finding a replacement, or even the shadow of what once was, in a world as big and changed as ours is that much harder. Each story, delivered with a minimal grace and a compassionate eye for all points of view, offers a new angle. Powerful, touching and razor-sharp, they provide multiple entry points to view the complex morality change places on us as individuals and the societies we inhabit. Whichever way you turn these stories, the light of experience is clear to see and the emotion rings true.
Paul Woodgate wrote for various music magazines including R2 and Folk Radio UK. After attending several creative writing courses, he is now pursuing a story-telling itch he should have scratched twenty-five years ago and which, currently, consists of several unfinished shorts and a long-form novel in progress. He recently had his first acceptance for a short story from Silk & Smoke.