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 28 December 2010

"Storm Warning" by Vanessa Gebbie (Salt, 2010)

In this book victims of military/religious conflict who have a weakened sense of the present become vulnerable to sudden losses of working memory and invasion by the past. Dominant imagery involves beaches, feet/shoes, and smells, with several inter-generational relationships. This collection kicks off with "The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear", a strong 15 pager set in 1919. Next is the single paged "Storm Warning" featuring someone on leave from Helmand. Already we note that the theme doesn't over-constrain the pieces in style or content. Later we're faced by the Berlin Wall, S.E. Asia, concentration camps, etc.

"Road Kill" is about 6 pages. Here's the start, end and a few extracts from the first section (which is about a page long). It shows some common techniques

He's George 'Sparks' Faraday, eighty-something, old soldier. ... Lies in trenches, shells flying as close as that while he drinks coffee at The Legion, eats macaroons ...
People won't let him forget. Invite him to speak at dinners...
Sparks only forgets when he's with his animals. Injured badgers, foxes, squirrels ... When he was ten, his dog three, he stole a bar of chocolate. His father, normally a mild man, made him stuff the whole bar in his mouth, then thrashed him hard until he was sick.
'You'll not forgot this in a hurry,' his father said when he'd finished. Sparks must have tried to smile. Next day the dog had gone. Been put down.
'I said you'd not forget,' his father said

It's 3rd person. At times it's almost disguised 1st person. Phrases like "as that" increase the immediacy. A person's nickname matters to them. Memory and sensation are interspliced. Themes and causes are introduced early. At the end of the story he puts an injured animal to sleep, an event interspliced with a related war-time memory. It works well.

"Background Noise" follows a similar pattern. The first paragraph like a prelude introduces the setting, characters and theme - "There's air for you". These are expanded in the first section that lasts a page or so. Then the old man acts out a past traumatic event - escaping from a sub - his grand-daughter scared by the ferocity of the recreation, the new truths it may reveal.

"The Salt Box" also has a page-long first section, ending with "I tore [the cabbages] into pieces until they filled the pan, then I watched them turning red with beet juice". During the story we realise that when people come to search, a writer's secreted work is put into the soup. He eats it without realising. At the end "Grandpa, the great Alexei Alexandrovich, lay back and closed his eyes" (a filling - or final - meal). That piece has no gore whereas "Wei Ch'i" has the bloodless gruesomeness of fable. People might find some of the other pieces too graphic for their liking.

I'm reminded of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, Studs Terkel, ghosted biographical material, stories/anecdotes by a guy at my local writers group. It's powerful stuff, though it doesn't have the variety of her first book (note: I overvalue variety). Judged as conflict-resolution pieces, the conflict in these stories pre-exists and often involves one person and their memories. Also, I'm not always sure about the diction. For examples, "Gas Gangrene" begins "It's a sick joke, mate, looking back. You people think gas gangrene was some sort of bloating, a passing blackening of the lungs, a momentary seizing". Although speakers do of course mix registers, and although "passing" and "momentary" may be attributed to "you people", it distracted me. I had trouble placing the narrative voice in the otherwise interesting "Confession to a Drowned Dog".

"On the Beach" concludes with a rhetorical flourish, simple and strong

I know that once a man's likeness was etched into the winding-sheet. I know that you lay on this beach back then, in the war, your body undisturbed for days, while they kept me away for fear of mines. I could see you from my window. As though you were simply resting, cushioned against the pebbles. Turning your face against the sun.

My favorites? "The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear", "Lay-By", and "The Wig Maker". Not "Letters from Kilburn" or "An Arm in a Blue Sleeve". p.71 has a typo: "I was getting to old".

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