‘Don’t Try This at Home’ by Angela Readman is a dense collection of beautiful short stories that testify to her work as a poet as well as a short story writer. The stories are tonally varied, ranging from the fairytale-esque and the fantastical, to stories more urban and realist. They are stylistically unified by her distinctive use of language which blends a realist narrative style, punctuated by flat, dead-pan humour, with allusions to more dreamlike and magical storytelling. The stories are structured around striking images that are emblematic of the individual stories, and also of her extremely visual writing style. These images, invoked by certain phrases, are worked through the stories as a regular beat and linger well beyond the stories’ conclusions.
In ‘Surviving Sainthood’, a teenage boy narrates the story of his disabled younger sister’s life (to her), and constantly recalls the moment of the accident: “The smiling plastic dolphin bobs in the pool”. Her physical paralysis and the metaphorical paralysis of their lives is contained in this immobilising, suspended, lifeless image. In ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes’, a girl and her father living an uncertain and unstable life in an American trailer park sell their taxidermy crafts for small amounts of money. They live off food foraged from supermarket bins and fill their trailer with jackalopes – stuffed rabbits with antlers sewn onto their heads, which are mythical animals created for comfort out of their own storytelling. These objects exist within the story and outside of the story: to the reader the slightly grisly creations signify Clary and her father’s fiscal poverty, but also their relative creative and emotional wealth.
Readman has an eye for moments of beauty glimpsed in unphotogenic lives, and conversely, for the ugliness of wealth and comfort. In ‘There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop’, a child describes their mother’s transformation into an Elvis figure at the suggestion of sexual interest from female customers in the chip shop. This is manifested in the smallest movements she makes – fleeting indications of her joy and triumph. She might offer extra vinegar, or if she really likes them: “You want scraps?” becoming the pinnacle of her flirtatiousness and a marker of her momentary liberation. Conversely, in another story in the collection, ‘Birds Without Wings’, the daughter of a selfish and glamourous woman spends a miserable self-hating summer on a tremendously expensive and photogenic vacation to rural Mexico.
Her short stories are fantastic in their ability to bind up these things so seamlessly and meaningfully: both beauty and ugliness, but also tragedy and humour. In ‘Surviving Sainthood’, the withdrawn and manic teenage boy tells us of his mother’s desperate hope that her daughter is a modern day saint.
We stared up at a slip of oil on the cheek of the Mary painting above the fridge. ‘It’s a miracle,’ Mom said…Once, I stroked the painting. The tears smelt of pesto. The olive oily waft mingled with the rusty smell on my arms.
Across the collection personal tragedies unfold through narratives that, in the next beat, tell us of greasy food and personal hygiene and sexual awkwardness; all the ungraceful and clumsy details that make up the rest of a life. Though she is a deeply dry and funny writer, the blending tragic events with humorous and mundane details does not set out to put tragedy and comedy into sharp relief, but rather, to reflect the fact that personal tragedies are tedious and unflattering – ordinary to the point of commonplace.
At the heart of them all are stories of relationships, often within families, that are already complex and difficult, and are confused by the strange lives we find ourselves in. These relationships are explored within wildly different settings, some of them realist, others more surreal. Take ‘Don’t Try This at Home’, for instance, the title story of the collection. The narrator calmly explains:
I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted. I said we could double our time together…the yard was carpeted with silver slug trails. I suppose we could have used the kitchen floor, but I didn’t want to scratch the tiles.
As the couple make the decision to keep halving him in order to double their time and their money, the relationship fractures, and some – most – of his versions pack their bags and leave. She explains:
The rest of him is elsewhere, living in a quayside apartment with a woman with a dog with a fancy haircut, or working around the clock to make ends meet and put food on the table for three kids. He is rich, and he is poor. He is tired, and he has given in. We are happy, and bored. Sometimes I miss him. I see him look out of the window, wondering where part of him went.
This is placed next to a shorter story with a much simpler premise: a child grows up with conceptual artists as parents and experiences a childhood where an evening might be spent watching the moon rise through a hole in a blank canvas: “Mum said it was the best painting she’d ever seen”. Though remarkable, the narrator presents the story as being nothing so strange, nothing so unordinary. However, whether or not Readman’s writing could be neatly categorised as ‘magical’, ‘realist’, ‘magic realist’, neither of these things or all three, is beside the point. It is the continual and adept blending of tones and settings that make her writing so exhilarating and light. She considers herself to be a very literal writer, which goes some way to explaining her dead-pan approach to magical story-telling. Furthermore, there is no reason why something so literal might not also be very metaphorical. Even cutting your boyfriend in half to force him into a certain life could easily be understood as a depiction of the way we are constantly losing our potential futures at every point we make a firm decision, as we are constantly changing ourselves throughout our lives.
Any of these stories could have happened or might happen, or have simply been imagined – even ‘When we Were Witches’, which is the story of a young girls’ apprenticing to a lonely and sinister witch-woman. Any reading of this classical-seeming fairytale is transformed after hearing Readman’s explanation that it was inspired by her belief in the supernatural powers of a wishing-well she knew as a child, that made everything placed inside it look as if it had been turned to stone.
Considered as a collection, the breadth of the subject matter and the geographical scope is an impressive literary feat and makes for inspiring reading. The richness of the setting in each is a result of her ability to communicate significant amounts through tiny, carefully constructed details. We swing across the Atlantic and into wildly different families with the perfect delivery of modulated dialogue and a whole catalogue of casually noted visual details. A yard becomes a garden, a girl becomes a lass, and reference to Peter Rabbit might be exchanged for one to My Little Pony. With a prominent theme of childhood alienation, these stories do not necessarily make for light reading. But in the skilled hands of Readman, dry humour is inserted where it is least expected, and the reader can be left to revel in her imaginative powers, and her very beautiful and extremely precise use of language.
The Short Story Review / Hattie Pierce / 8th March 2016