New Welsh Short Stories, edited by Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas, is a collection of nineteen stories from a diverse range of authors. The Welsh connection is used extremely loosely, but with positive results; all of these short stories crackle with creative skill.
A varied collection, it dips and dives through an impressive spectrum of emotions, times, places, voices, and styles. The reader is transported from the mountains of Wales in decades gone by, to the clustered streets of modern-day Tokyo. Stretching from childhood to old age, the narrative styles range from the traditional to the experimental.
As with many volumes, this collection of short stories also has its fair share of the dead and dying. Fortunately in New Welsh Short Stories these subjects are treated with exemplary finesse. Indeed some of the finest stories in this collection deal with this difficult subject.
Maria Donovan’s cleverly named short story ‘Learning to say До свидания’ is an excellent example. The writing is delicate and imaginative, represented by one of the loveliest similes in the collection:
her fingers gallop over the keyboard like tiny ponies
This haunting story examines loss and location; memory seeps through the prose, providing a poignant juxtaposition with the narrator’s misery:
The day they moved here she opened her arms to the house and said, ‘I promise to love you.’ She said it to the house but she was looking at him. Now there’s a dead fly wrapped in a web in the corner. There are green spots of the inside of the windows.
The narrator attempts to move on with her life, to move out of the house she loves, where she lived with the man she loved – but she cannot avoid inhabiting the ghostly past and a part of her wants to remain there. The future, however, invades her still space as
the seasons change; the planet hurls itself once more around the sun.
‘Mr Philip’ is an equally touching story that also deals with loss. The structure is superb, with the narrative revolving around the recurring image of shoes which deftly brings insightful flights of thought back to the present. The steady pace provides room for a lyricism that heightens the emotive force, while suggesting a sense of inevitability that at times is hopeful and at times quite the opposite, as the narrator attempts to come to terms with the death of his father. An example of this is worth quoting in full:
In my stockinged feet I lay down on his bed and in the bright daylight I folded my arms across my chest and closed my eyes. Behind the lids, in the darkness, I could see the orange rectangle of his windows, the black bars of the small individual panes and in the blotchy dark it felt like everything, absolutely everything in my whole entire life, had been leading me to this exact moment – Helen, and Dave Carter, and all the big and small surprises of the last few strange weeks in Zlin and Norman Park and the hospital and the house had somehow produced it, and none of it had been a breadcrumb trail, it had all been a slowly advancing length of horrible tangled knitting, impossible now for me to go anywhere or do anything; as if I had lost, not just my shoes, but everything.
As above, several of the short stories use an image to build their narrative. Crocodiles are used in Kate Hamer’s short story ‘Crocodile Hearts’, externalising the pressures and difficulties of motherhood and illuminating the hidden tensions of family life. Stevie Davies’ ‘Ground-Nester’ similarly utilises the unexpected appearance of a rare nesting bird to provide a parallel to a domestic drama that stings and salves in equal measure.
One of the most impressive short stories that employs this device is Deborah Kay Davies’ ‘No One is Looking at You’. This masterful story is a lesson in short story writing: it is punchy and precise, weaving several themes throughout, while mining the depths of the central character, a young girl called Eve. In this epiphanic, yet ambiguous story the heroine craves attention as she becomes increasingly aware of her femininity. These two themes are intriguingly literalised through a bright bikini which becomes an object of climactic contention.
Young people are a strong feature of this collection, providing alternative scenes and voices. Thomas Morris’s ‘17’ is a hard-hitting, fast-paced story with all the swagger and pseudo-depth of adolescence
I was seventeen and in mourning for the first love gone awry. Jessica and I had only gone out for three months, but it’s wrong to measure first relationships in units of time.
It’s one of the strongest voices within the collection and Morris delivers a killer ending. Similar tones can be seen in ‘Yes Kung Fu’ by Joâo Morais which offers this dialectically entertaining opening:
Get out the fuckin way, I goes to the Corsa. I’m late already. I can’t be late today. But the Corsa don’t move. It starts rocking. I honks my horn like it’s gonna make a difference, but the Corsa just stays there.
It’s impossible not to be hooked by that controlled gambit ‘I can’t be late today’ and so we follow the journey of this morally-dubious, law-avoiding protagonist who is desperate to see his daughter, but finds himself hindered by a man known only as ‘Kung Fu’.
The most intriguing opening is found in Jo Mazelis’s superb short story ‘Levitation’:
Rising up in the air, the dead girl feels… dead. Her eyes are closed; for a moment she has forgotten everything. She is dead. Then alive again. They have set her down on the concrete wall and the ceremony is over.
This story is a heart-wrenching narrative that twists around familial issues that make the narrator’s isolation all the keener. At times the writing is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s, capturing a child’s loneliness and seclusion:
She is like a fallen leaf caught up in a strong gust of wind. She has no locomotion. In biology Mr Thomas has taught them that as seeds have no locomotion they must find other means of dispersal, hence the helicopter wings of sycamore trees.
From Wales to Tokyo – in Eluned Gramich’s short story ‘Pulling Out’ we’re dropped into the confines of a small flat that becomes unbearably claustrophobic and oppressive as the narrator deals with inertia, a difficult mother, and a younger brother, Toru, who will not leave his room. A tense story that becomes ever more disturbing, ‘Pulling Out’ teeters on the edge of horror as the complete lack of Toru’s physical presence triggers both the narrator’s and the reader’s imagination, setting down a sinister path, with a hair-raisingly open-ended last line.
The East also features in Joe Dunthorne’s amusing short story ‘Rising-Falling’ that follows a professor’s flight to China where he hopes to meet the love of his life – whom he met over the internet. With wry wit, Dunthorne raises the light on modern romance with all is pit-falls and positives: ‘I have rarely felt such delight as when reading the words Elizabeth is typing’.
This collection does not just challenge the reader. It also challenges the form itself with experimental pieces that illustrate the possibilities of the short story form, as well as the talent and boundary-pushing endeavours of contemporary short story writers. Notably, Sarah Cole’s ‘A Romace’, Zillah Bethell’s ‘Liar’s Sonnet’ and Ann Constantine’s ‘John Henry’ explore alternative styles and influences to different effects. They provide a refreshing contrast to the more traditional (though still excellent) short stories such as Azzopardi’s ‘On the Inside’, Muller’s ‘The Bare—chested Adventurer’ Trezise’s ‘Happy Fire’ and Cynan Jones’s ‘A Letter from Wales’.
Of the experimental pieces, the best was ‘Balm-of-Gilead’ which reads like a screenplay, with two disembodied voices primarily skirting around memories of their parents in a turgid, strikingly Beckettian post-apocalyptic environment. The editors of the collection, Rhydderch and Thomas, suggest it might be seen ‘as a renegade reworking of Under Milk Wood’ for modern times.’ It’s an astute comparison.
This review would not complete without a plaudit for Tyler Keevil’s short story ‘Night Start’ which sits at the front of the collection. It is among three or four of the stories which really stand out. Harnessing several moods, Keevil shows an effortless command of his language as the opening paragraph reveals:
It was late June and hot, and I was having a hell of a time falling asleep. That was nothing new. That’s always the case, with me. Partly I’d been thinking of the bun Lowri had in the oven, and all the change that was coming at us.
The setting, the time, the characters, and the tone are shown in just a few sentences. The words ‘hell’ and ‘oven’ reinforce the unpleasant temperature, and the reference to the underworld swiftly establishes the dark and eerie backdrop which haunts the story. Meanwhile, the colloquial tone combined with the comical mention of the wife’s baking bun belie the unease that sits behind the heat, the insomnia, and that significant, curious, disquieting last phrase ‘all the change that was coming at us’.
Seren Publishing and the editors, Rhydderch and Thomas, should be applauded for bringing together such a sizzling collection of short stories that show the power and possibility of the short form.
The Short Story Review / Rupert Dastur / 21st September 2015