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.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

"Words from a Glass Bubble" by Vanessa Gebbie (Salt, 2008)

147 pages, 19 stories - several of them 3 pages long. I think the first will be enough to make you want to read to the end of the book.

With old whodunnits, one assumes the butler did it. In a story like the first - "Words from a Glass Bubble" - one assumes that the symbolic bubble will be burst, and indeed it is, though much else happens besides. The characters are believable, the descriptions spare and effective, but I'd like to focus on the literary aspects. In the first page we learn that the glass bauble contains the Virgin Mary (the "VM") and child. Eva lives with Connor. It sounds as if their child, Declan, died young 20 or so years before. The VM talks to Eva who often feels the voice in her stomach (her womb?). Then we hear about Finn Piper - an illiterate farmer who lives alone and is first seen walking naked across his yard. Already the bauble's gathering meaning: the VM expresses Eva's repressed thoughts maybe, the VM+child pairing echoed by Eva+Finn/Declan. Throughout, (and usually associated with Finn) birds are mentioned in description or simile - crow, rook, buzzard, sparrow, eagle, cuckoo, pigeon. Eva befriends Finn and takes him to a children's party, the VM + child (extracted from the bauble) in her pocket. At the end the husband returns the VM+child to the bauble, and starts hearing the VM too. Then the Declan=Finn identity is reinforced, the trapped spirit released like a ghost, triumphant, though I did wonder where the Lourdes water went.

This description might lead you to think that you can hear the gears grinding through the piece. Not at all - the symbolism doesn't fit together over-neatly, and there's always enough human interest to distract readers from wondering how all the balls are being kept in the air.

The second story also ends with a man beginning to share the long-held fantasy world of a woman, the woman not disconcerted to see/hear things that others don't. The style's different though, and styles continue to ring the changes until "Irrigation" (mentioned in my Riptide write-up) which comes from the same school as "Words from a Glass Bubble". The next story, "Excavation" (only 3 pages or so), breaks all the preceding moulds - my favourite piece so far. Authorial orientation changes too - sometimes the narrator's invisible, sometimes she's puppeteer, ring-master or quizzing, challenging storyteller. In "Dodie's Gift" the narrator's in charge, having the last word. "The Lych-Warmer" too has an active narrator. After that there are some quieter pieces, though "Cactus Man"'s not at all bad, and "Fuck Magnolia" returns to the type of story that's her strength - with multiple themes held in balance while the narrative drives forward.

Ruth Padel in her latest book described some poems as having "a taut cat's cradle of sonic echoing". Some stories here create a similar cat's cradle of concepts where links are developed between (say) 3 people and a significant object. When everything's finally connected to everything else (in the first story this happens when Connor connects with the bauble) the story achieves a spatial (rather than linear) closure. Contrast that with "Harry's catch" where a fishing story is punctuated by flashbacks. Though more than merely competent it's a standard flip-flop format, and doesn't stand out amongst the competition. This is the only piece that for me disappoints through lack of ambition. Some other pieces (e.g. "The Kettle on the Boat", "Simon's Skin", "The Carob Tree", "Closed Doors"), even if they don't succeed, at least try to be a little different. All in all there are enough good pieces in enough styles for the book to be used as an anthology demonstrating how stories should be written nowadays.

Traits? There are old virgins, wall eyes, "joined up houses", dead children, fostered/adopted children, birds, and the sand gets everywhere. Several churches too - the church-cleaners are perhaps examples of the more general "body" cleaners that pervade the stories. Many characters are outcasts longing for old wounds to be healed, or are merely seeking a firmer identity. It's striking how early the characters introduce themselves (or another character) to the reader - many first pages have "I'm X" or "X is".

It's tempting to compare Baines with Gebbie - both are Salt-published females of roughly the same generation with prize-winning writing credentials and experience of teaching creative writing. Gebbie plans to write poetry. Baines writes drama and used to edit "Metropolitan", a short story magazine. Their stories are rarely formalist or ludic. For the most part they use single-threaded, character-based narratives without plot punch-lines. They tend towards different ways of making a story "short": Baines opts for a brief story-time duration, Gebbie's more likely to hollow out than slice, and is more sensationalist (or striking).

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