Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Salon: Short Storyfest.

There is a lot I should be doing today: there is a big library book open on my book stand; the house is in a mess; the laundry has mounted up, the weeds are growing much too sumptuously in the garden...but it's beautiful weather and I am determined to make the most of it so I am sitting outside reading through various selections and will review them as I go, updating this post throughout the day.

The first one so far has been this the eponymous story from Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie. It reminded me a little of Tania Hershmann's story in Along the White Road in that it was about the ways people cope with the loss of a child. It was unusual and quite poetic, as well as having some really effective off-beat humour. For instance, when the virgin Mary speaks her words are 'unfailingly meaningful and often ungrammatical'. She also has to speak out of the corner of her mouth where her pink lipstick had smudged. The story manages to be moving, wise, religious and irreverent all at the same time - quite a feat. I really enjoyed it.

Next I'm going to dip into the prize winning stories from the National Short Story Prize 2006 - starting with 'The Flyover' by Rana Dasgupta.

This is a strange mixture of fantasy and modern day crime. It started off quite promisingly like a story from V.S. Naipul's 'In a Free State' but then slithered away from me. I didn't understand it, I'm afraid, and would love someone to explain it to me. But it is well-written and evocative of another place and culture. Ah well, moving on...

To Michel Faber's The Safehouse. This was really good. It took something commonplace - the missing person poster and went riding away with it. It was witty and surreal - but it could have worked equally well as the beginning of a novel. A man wakes up and discovers why people are staring at him. This compels him to go to 'The Safehouse'. I don't want to say much more so as not to give the whole thing away. There is an excellent description of the place which is really thought-provoking and I obviously raved on about this story enough for Hodmandod Senior to pick it up so I'm writing this as I wait for him to finish.

Next is 'An Anxious Man' by James Lasdun. This was quite different in tone from the first two. It was much less fantastical and could be described as a character study. In a way nothing really happened, and yet it was gripping - a great testament to the skill of the storyteller. The narrator is challenged again and again by his own imagined fears, and when these turn out to amount to nothing, his promises are forgotten.

Rose Tremain's story The Ebony Hand was excellent. It was set a little in the past - the first one to be so. It was realistic, but there was an oddness about it due to the insanity of one of the characters, and the strangeness of the narrator - who was as middle-aged and isolated. There were some great pieces of writing, and I think it was this one that won the competition.

The last one is Men of Ireland by William Trevor. It is one of the shortest ones and yet perhaps more than any of them. A tramp visits the priest of a parish he left when young. He insinuates and unsettles the priest and at last the priest gives him money. It causes the priest to question his motive. It is an exquisite little story, quite a perfect gem.

Now onto the 2007 collection. The first one is by David Almond, who normally writes for children. It's called 'Slug's Dad'. It is set firmly in all the north-east, as David Almond's work normally is, and it is about an encounter with a ghost. I was extremely moving.

The Morena by Jonathan Falla is a much longer story about a young woman trapped by lack of anywhere else to go in the house of an old man. It is set in a Latin American country, and is about the displacement of infatuation. It's well-written and involving.

I don't think I've ever read anything quite like Julian Gough's 'The Orphan and the Mob'. It is very funny, fantastical, and fast-moving. It is also teasing. It struck me as a cross between Father Ted and the League of Gentlemen. An eighteen year old priest has to take some orphans from the orphanage to an event in town. The characters are deliberate stereotypes, and half way through a mystery is introduced - one that you somehow know will never be solved because that would spoil it. A sophisticated piece.

The next story, Jackie Kay's 'How to Get Away With Suicide' is about exactly that. Malcolm doesn't want to live any more, but he doesn't want anyone to feel they've driven him to it. It's an interesting and noble thought, because I often feel that is the point of most people's suicide: it is the ultimate revenge tactic. I think the general sentiment is 'You drove me to this and I hope you feel guilty the rest of your life'. But Malcolm doesn't want his ex-wife, who has dumped him, to go through this. The story is a monologue which is one of my favourite prose styles.

The last story by Hanif Kuereishi is a story of our times: a short monologue about a man who films beheadings. It is horrific.

That's been a lot to read in one day. Short stories are more intense than novels, I think. One thing that struck me was how different the two collections were. The first all seemed to me to be slightly off-beat and fantastical whereas the thing that was striking about the 2007 collection was the variety of styles. It's been an interesting day but oddly tiring and now feel I need to go away and think of nothing for a while.


Blogger jem said...

Thanks for that little walkthrough your Sunday reading. I haven't read your blog in a while, in part because I've been reading out in my own garden quite a bit. It's good to be back and catching up.

Those story collections seem like a good way to dip into a variety of different authors and try them for size. Sort of like pick n' mix. And that Gebbie collection looks good too, fantastic title.

Mon Jun 01, 03:01:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hello again Jem! yes, good idea to get a bit of sun while you can. Yes, I enjoyed my little fest - but didn't envy the judges trying to choose a winner.

Mon Jun 01, 09:13:00 pm  

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