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.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

"The Scent of Cinnamon" by Charles Lambert (Salt, 2008)

16 stories, all 3000 words or so except for "Growing", but even that fable isn't short. They're all mainstream structurally (with beginnings, middles and endings) and the narrational voice is not only easily identified but is always educated - 3rd or 1st person. There are female murderers, middle-class widowers, children and soldiers amongst the spectrum of characters exhibiting a range of love - dutiful, parental, blind, transient - in genres that are usually Realist, but in a significant minority of stories aren't. Storytime durations are more often months or years, though in "Moving the Needle ..." it's hours intersperced with flashbacks. In other eras this kind of book would be a popular read. Indeed, some of these stories could have been written in other eras. But there's modern content too, and a wide range of settings - Dunkirk; modern Italian university life; London squats, etc.

Outsiders (but not loners) predominate - children in an adult world, immigrants, and gays. I think the stories fall roughly into 3 categories: stories where relationships are fluid and changing ("Toad"); stories where an individual tries to deal with a rigidly stratified system (perhaps a generation back); and stories about couples. In general couples don't last - events or other people/couples come to symbolise and affect the relationships. In "Air" for example, the acquarium supplies imagery and the gay bar offers glimpses of the future, the thin end of the wedge. In "Crack" Joey remembers stealing a girlfriend from a friend not because he wanted her, but to hurt. Then he steals a cat-shaped pin-cushion from the same friend's cat-loving wife (shades of voodoo), precipitating events.

Throughout, imagery is sparse and effective - "The buildings around the port were painted in cool soft colours, like tubs of ice cream", p.35; "She looks confused and sullen, as though she is posing for kidnappers", p.86; "The bathroom is full of steam, the mirrors behind the tub are furred with it", p.108.

"The Scent of Cinnamon", "Moving the needle towards the thread" and "Soap" could have disguised events to increase later surprise, but the stories don't aim for such punchlines. Many pieces use flashbacks, though the proportions vary. "Something Rich and Strange" is nearly all flashback. Its start sets the scene efficiently - sentences like "He was offered an office larger than this and facing the sea, in recognition of his years of service, but turned it down" (p.127) cover much ground, and flashbacks like the following work for me - "Even now, his most lasting memory of holidays is of the day a boy his age was drowned ... The sea can be very treacherous, he heard an old woman say in a cafe that afternoon. Later he asked his mother what treacherous meant. It's when someone lets you down, she said, because she hadn't heard. But it was odd to think of the sea as someone" (p.127).

He does childhood especially well. Indeed, nothing's merely average, though judged by the high standards that this book merits, the stories might sometimes not deliver the memorability that the word-count might lead one to expect ("Soap" certainly earns its keep, but what about "Little Potato, Little Pea" with its out-of-context "spots with black bits in the middle" and "pale green face" ending?) and though few stories share a mileau, sometimes I would have welcomed a change of register (there are mad people, for example, but they're not very verbal), or even a happy ending once in a while.

No comments:

Post a Comment