Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

"Balancing on the edge of the world" by Elizabeth Baines (Salt, 2007)

The acknowledgements page shows what you need to do nowadays to have a short story collection published: stories in London Magazine, Staple, Metropolitan, Stand (twice), East of the web (twice), bananas, Radio 3, the Literary Review, etc - a list that puts most poetry collections to shame. The pieces average 6 pages, though they range from 1 page to about 20.

Middle class people dominate, usually in English urban settings. Separated parents with children are often depicted using a female PoV. Early on in the stories we're introduced to all the cast. Stories take place in one location in a narrow time window. There are few loners or loonies - there's always interpersonal interaction. There's little about death - no first loves, no punchlines.

These repeated traits are used in various ways, and the language varies too - one couldn't simply transplant a sentence from one piece to another - "pigeons rise up before her, wheel in a thrill of flight over pinked tinged buildings, then sink back down with a breaking of wings like a sigh" (p.74) is between the extremes of lyricism and reportage used in other pieces.

I most liked "Leaf Memory", "A Glossary of Bread" (based around definitions of words for "roll"), and "Going Back" (perhaps my favorite - shades of Woolf). These have non-standard narratives, though I liked "Shooting Script" (strong comic characterisation) too. I wasn't so keen on "Daniel Smith ..." (too slight), "Conundrum" (too slight) or "Into the Night" (too workshoppy).

Writers sometimes mention an item or event several times in stories, more as an adaptable symbol than a leitmotif. Sometimes it parallels events, sometimes it's more enigmatic, able to mirror, summarize or foreshadow. Quite often the characters aren't aware of the item (which can be a tree, the sky, a neighbour's activities in the garden, or even some extra-narrative element). Even if they are, they're unaware of its symbolic import. Examples include the birds in Hitchcock's "The Birds". It's a technique used in this book. In "Power" for example, the cat (a "he", like the absent father) provides enigmatic symbols to interpret. The wasteland however tracks the mood in pathetic fallacy fashion - it's built upon at the end. "Star Things" has a meteorite, a catalyst to bring out class differences. In "Compass and Torch" the objects are useful almost as objective correlatives (elided similes) to compare the son and father, whereas the horse (a "she" like the absent mother) has a less direct role.

Even though there are family resemblances between stories, one shouldn't underestimate the differences. "Power" has a child PoV, the restriction overcome by quoting overheard phonecalls. When control's not obtained by the child, when beliefs are shattered, the child creates a private fantasy world starring the cat. "Ways to Behave" is more plot-driven. "Condensed metaphysics" uses a pub philosopher and a late-night-cafe physics student to info-dump theories before a group of women on a night out, social divides and broken family units showing through.

But did I like it? Yes. For one reason or another (lack of talent, but also a lack of devotion to character/voice) I couldn't have written most of these pieces. I had a piece called "The Big Climb" published in "Staple" once, about a father and young son on a hilly hike, the mother gone away, but there the resemblances to "Compass and Torch" end.

Jan 2009 - In response to my query that the pieces were more drama- than film-based (few scene-changes or acts; little cross-cutting; frequent voiced thoughts) the author noted that "of the 13 stories in it, I see that 6 do deal with a single episode over a short time span in the time-honoured short-story way, but that 7 deal with several scenes over a longer period. In fact I have thought of some of these last as using the cinematic technique of quick cuts which avoid narrative explanation - 'Who's Singing?', for instance, which keeps cutting between the Medical Professor's home and the hospital. 'A Glossary of Bread' spans a whole childhood, in fact, and 'Holding Hands' a whole life into early middle age." which makes me think I'd better read the book again.

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