Review by Rupert Dastur
In an interview I conducted earlier this year, Jo Mazelis spoke interestingly about unifying themes that bind short story collections together, commenting that for her it is the author’s style and voice which unites the pieces, rather than a preconceived umbrella-like idea. While the short stories in this third collection by Mazelis certainly shows a developed hand penning prose that rolls like steady, distinct waves across the page, there are unmissable melodies that weave their way into the stories: womanhood, childhood, loneliness, exclusion, missed opportunities, and surface appearances, to name just a few.
More definitively, all nineteen stories are largely told from a female perspective and only a few diverge from third person narration. Whether planned or not, these recurring features combine with an often interior, literary style to give a distinct pitch to the collection – rarely tsunamic in fervour, they nevertheless fluctuate between the curious, the mystical, and the uncanny, leaving the reader bewitched with each unfolding tale.
One of my favourite short stories in this collection, which exemplifies many of the above characteristics, is ‘Velvet’. Skilfully oscillating between the perspective of a mother and various young girls at a birthday party, Mazelis illuminates the almost incomprehensible cruelty of children, their bizarre rituals that include and exclude both their contemporaries and adults alike, and the way seemingly innocuous actions can suddenly attain horrifying significance. There is one particularly brilliant scene in which a girl tries to place a shiny pebble within the cupped petals of a flower:
She picked it up and carefully, almost tenderly, dropped it into the tulip. The result was disappointing; she had wanted to see the stone nestled inside the flower, hunkering down among its complicated innards, its stamen, pistil and anther. No, the result was sudden and shocking. She let the pebble drop from her fingers and the tulip’s head abandoned its ardent and lovely uprightness, snapped at the neck and fell onto the unyielding earth below.
For the next four paragraphs we delve into the thoughts of the young girl, something which Mazelis captures with a poignancy and accuracy rarely encountered and is reminiscent of Virgina Woolf’s mining of the mind.
In the last paragraph of this episode, the girl flees the scene of the crime and this action, this escaping or drifting away is another feature which Mazelis lights upon with some frequency. It begins with the first short story ‘Levitation, 1969’ which ends with the protagonist ‘floating far overhead’ until she cannot be seen, a place where ‘she’s free’ . This continues in the short story ‘Whose Story is this Anyway’ which concludes with a central figure who ‘flew up in the air and only when she fell to earth did she finally know everything’.
There is, in many ways, a sense of transition in these short stories, of a movement from innocence to experience, a point made explicit by the epigraph which quotes the poem ‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake. Although Mazelis complicates these tensions, the dynamics between men and women in this short story collection reflect the poem and can be traced in ‘Mechanics’, ‘A Murder Stone’, ‘Word Made Flesh’, ‘Whose Story is this Anyway’, ‘Storm Dogs’, ‘Fallen Apples’, and perhaps most disturbingly in ‘Biology, 1969’ which follows a brief, unexpected sexual assault and the depressingly cold aftermath that’s bound in the contexts of the time, but also laced with a psychology that is still, sadly, prevalent today.
Relevant to the theme of innocence and experience, ‘Biology, 1969’ is told from the perspective of a teacher, a trend which permeates the collection. ‘Levitation, 1969’, ‘Prayer, 1969’, ‘Ritual, 1969’ and ‘Undone, 1969’ are all connected by this suggestive environment, as well as their unifying titles.
My favourite among these is the first short story in the collection, ‘Levitation, 1969’ which I first read in the anthology New Welsh Short Stories (Seren, 2015). The opening line demonstrates Mazelis’s ability to hook the reader and then slowly reel them in: ‘Rising up in the air, the dead girl feels . . . dead.’ Tone, atmosphere, character are all meticulously displayed with just a few words.
Perhaps the best first line in the collection is in the mysterious short story ‘The Green Hour’ which reveals the deft touches of beauty Mazelis brings to her sentences: ‘She thought of the sea as her beating heart and so its violence on certain wild nights frightened her.’ This story is one among a small handful which reduce the cohesion of the volume, but are excellent inclusions, being among the most impressive in the collection as a whole. Indeed when a short story like ‘The Flower Maker’ finds its way into a collection and leaves you reading it three times over because it’s so good, the seeming disconnectedness of the piece becomes inconsequential and one is quickly reminded that the only really important factor in any collection is quality writing – something Mazelis provides in abundance. A third reading also has the benefit of revealing those connections that at first seemed obscure. In this case, matters of patriarchy, beauty, poverty, and the interactions of the old and young.
This relationship between generations is further seen in the way the past encroaches on the present, often with a distinctly haunting hue. ‘Caretakers’ is the most overtly ghostly, with little footprints from invisible feet that potter around a sinister Georgian house. It’s a well-placed story priming the reader for later narratives that have their own supernatural signatures.
As just the briefest of brushings with this short story collection reveal, Mazelis explores a dazzling range of ideas, geographies and times, often couched in the daily realities of women and children, the marginalised and the powerless, the scared, hopeless, and hapless. It is a powerful collection which demands attention, denies light relief, drives the reader along the lines with an urgency and perceptiveness that is often surprising. Yet, importantly, Mazelis does not lecture. The author does not stand at the pulpit and wave a knowing finger at the congregation. Instead, she opens doors and says go ahead, have a look, make your conclusions. Read into it what you will.
Ritual, 1969 reveals the absolute mastery Mazelis has over the short form and this third collection is a superb display of a writer keenly attentive to the human mind, its motives and its mysteries.
Jo Mazelis’s fiction has also appeared on TSS for our Featured Short Fiction series. You can read her piece, ‘Amongst the Bluebells’ here.
Ritual, 1969 can be purchased directly from the publisher here.
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