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.

Saturday 31 October 2015

"Used to be" by Elizabeth Baines (Salt 2015)

A Review

The Mandaeans of southern Iraq had a demon called Dinanukht, half man and half book, who "sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself". This demon could be the patron saint of Bainesland, where characters interpret symbols that seem to belong to the external world, but turn out being part of the character's past.

These 12 stories span a range of symbolic visibility. In the epistolic "A matter of light" set in May 1816, a self-proclaimed rational man dismisses strange events as interesting physical phenomena, tricks of the light worthy of investigation. Even when he entertains the possibility of ghosts, he dismisses the notion because he's lived too virtuous a life to deserve being haunted. But we learn he's a plantation owner and that his treatment of slaves wasn't perfect. The dark shadows and the "light" of the title take on racial overtones.

In "Looking for the castle" the symbolism's more overt. A women takes a detour to visit her home town. She has problems navigating her past. Has so much really changed? Maybe the unfindable castle's really the misremembered priory. But what is she really seeking? Was her childhood a place where she felt safe, or was it a confinement that still restricts her? After all, the fence her father built is still there.

"Used To Be" includes another mindscape - two middle-aged sisters, actresses, are on their way to an amateur film-set. The journey of bridges and missed turnings becomes a metaphor ("And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves") then becomes another story to tell when they arrive late.

Further along the overtness spectrum is "Tides or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told". Fans of "show, not tell" might balk at the 13 mentions of "story" or "stories" and the discussion of narratives - e.g. "Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending?" - but to me it's like the stage magician who explains how a trick works only to surprise the audience later. What kind of story of herself does the narrator want to write?

The protagonists come in many varieties (male/female, young/old, presented in the first, second and third person), but they're all opening a debate with their past. Sometimes it's disowned - "I see her, my former self, as another person" - used as raw material to be melted down, reforged. Sometimes it illuminates the present. The settings encourage reinterpretations - film-sets, Brontë country, old haunts. Explicitly or otherwise, the characters are story-makers, reassembling their life-arc from stirred memories.

Whatever the uncertainty of the narrators, the characters are utterly believable. There's always the sensation of an underlying reality. Characters may exhibit enhanced free will once they've unshackled themselves from the past, but the real world is a given.

My favourites are "Used to be", "Falling" and especially "Tides or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told" (which is much shorter than I recall it being). None of the stories are routine, which is no surprise given that they've all been published already in places like "Carve Magazine", "Unthology", "Stand" and "Best British Short Stories". You can buy it directly from Salt.

Notes about the Stories

There are two sections, the second with rather shorter stories.

What Was, What Is

  • "Used To Be" - two middle-aged sisters are on their way to an amateur film-set. "I used to be a writer who decided for her characters what they were thinking. ... I used to write in measured sentences ... I used to hide behind the third person ... I no longer trust metaphors ... I used to believe in plots". The author/narrator is also a reader, having to assess the veracity of her sister's stories, and of her own - "in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable, but fluid". The journey of bridges and missed turnings becomes a metaphor ("And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves") then becomes another story to tell when they arrive at the set. Her sister suddenly takes her role seriously, identifying with the part - "the tyranny of stories, the way they take you over with their own internal logic and their pull towards drama, you say one thing and the story turns it into something else". Her sister suffered violence from her partner.
  • "That Turbulent Stillness" - 1st person female. The first and last paragraphs both confuse "I" and "she" -

    • "The Trouble was - I can tell you - she was prone to taking her cues from Brontë heroines"
    • "So, Reader, she didn't marry Kevin Flanagan. She. I. I didn't marry him. Now, these years later, I see her, my former self, as another person, the heroine, like Cathy, only of a story within a story. And like Cathy's housekeeper Nelly Dean, I watch her from out of a bigger, wider story, and sigh and smile ..."

    Characters from novels influence her thoughts - "the history wiped, she and Kevin new-born into a brand-new story in which he was the only hero and she the only heroine." She thinks her partner Kevin assaults an ex through jealousy, but it was a business/class thing.

  • "Looking for the Castle" - Nel mezzo del cammin, à la recherche du temps perdu. 2nd person female - the supposedly risky 2nd person voice is safe in this author's hands. It features another narrator with a sister who she travelled with, and more canals. Was there really a castle? Her father made a fence for the chickens, and another - for her? - that's still there. Her partner survived self-harm - "In the beginning it was all you wanted, to rescue him from his past" (p.30). A local says "Could it be that you invented the castle of your memory? Imagined, dreamt your own past?" (p.31).
  • "The Relentless Pull of Gravity" - Multiple PoVs, initially of a divorced 45 y.o. male, struggling to maintain a contact with 14 y.o. daughter and old mother. A death by the canal is a conversation topic with both of them. On p.36 he regrets the sense of things being "stuck" when he recalls them. The story has embedded quotes from a science web site, the first being "A black hole is an object that is so compact its gravitational force is strong enough to prevent light, or anything else, escaping". On p.39 the daughter's metaleptically holding a book - "Our Universe: Luck or Design". Towards the end the daughter wanders to the canal, wondering whether to visit her gran who lives nearby. Finally "We know now that black holes evaporate, slowly returning their energy to the universe".
  • "Clarrie and You" - 2nd person, the "you" being a younger sister. The story slips decades forwards, after which we see how sibling rivalry and deceptions have festered, brought to a head by the need to care for an aging mother, and later, to make funeral arrangements. Clarrie has secrets, not least about her husband.
  • "A Matter of Light" - Some journal entries from May 1816. A rational man, 76, is seeing things in a house that "faces not to the past but to the future". He tries to rationalise the apparitions, reading the latest treatise on light, wonders if he might be on the verge of a scientific discovery. Even when he concedes that he may be seeing ghosts, he tries to explain their presence by considering his behaviour to his family. He recalls nothing that warrants being haunted. But then we learn that he's a plantation owner, and that his treatment of slaves wasn't as good as he tries to make out. So the "Light" of the title might also allude to skin colour.

What May Be

  • "Possibility" - 4 characters' PoVs as they experience a train incident. Self-images of coping. Is "6pm" on p.77 a typo?
  • "The Choice Chamber" - A mother of 2 sons is told about a school biology experiment that investigates maggots' preferences. She thinks back to her life choices. This is the most cryptic of the stories so far. Is she a single parent? Who phones (ex's partner? husband's lover?) and why? When she discovered that her ex's partner was like her what did she think?
  • "What Do You Do If" - 2nd person, female PoV. An actress has lost a lover because he doesn't know whether she's acting. The character tries to balance empathy and gullibility, living with guilt whatever she does.
  • "Falling" - the character falls 3 times, "tipping into a different future" (p.105). The falls seem to relate to feelings of insecurity - doubts about her boyfriend and her self. After the 3rd, she wonders if she'd died after the 1st, whether she was dreaming. Or maybe she'd died after the 2nd fall. Or maybe she died in the 3rd episode, an observer not wanting to see a death, wondering if he was dreaming.
  • "Where the Starlings Fly" - 1st person female. She's a teacher who knows "how to capture the children with a story, how to give things shape by organising them into themes, how to back it all up with visual aids". It ends with "I knew how to make myself better. I knew what I'd do".
  • "Tides or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told" - 1st person female. 13 uses of "story/stories" in a 5 page piece. Betrayal by a partner (or suspicion of it) comes to echo a distrust of reality. There's much reflexive comment - "And I can't yet see how to tell the story, or where to go from that moment ... I could pick the time he betrayed me. ... I could tell that story, the time it ended between us. I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale ... once ... he nearly died. I could tell that last too, as a complete and rounded story ... Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending? ... We joined hands in the dark, in the oncoming rush of all the possible stories". There's confusion about feeling when recalling an event and feeling at the time of the event. Read also Charles E. May

Common traits

  • Ages stated early in the story - "you'd never know she was forty" (p.3), "now, in my seventy-sixth year" (p.63), "You are thirty-one years old" (p.77). Exact ages mentioned - "twenty-nine" (p.112), "Twenty today" (p.121)
  • Early mention of a fictional background - "the set of a student film" (p.3), "Brontë heroines" (p.11), "the land wheeled, flat as a canvas" (p.22), "tight commands of tragedy" (p.35), "freshly-painted backdrop" (p.46), there's a journal entry on p.63, "moving on a coloured screen" (p.78), "back from yet another audition", (p.98), "two figures in a tableau" (p.118)
  • A daughter's need to compare lover with father, or need for their father's endorsement of a husband-to-be.
  • Unnamed places - "where the Mersey joins the Manchester Ship Canal" - Eastham?
  • Canals, Sisters, Hills, Male violence.
  • The way (e.g. p.22-3) she can slip into the past and back again.
  • I find the phrase "There was nothing there" inelegant compared to "Nothing was there", so I noticed "There was nothing here" (p.25), "there was no one about" (p.26), "There was nothing there" (p.67), "There were four of them there" (p.113)
  • Past self as other - "she. I" (p.21), "I see her, my former self, as another person", "like you, like her" (p.78).


  • One story uses Black Hole analogies. Another mentions Young's double-slit experiment. I think the stories are mostly post-Einstein but pre-QM. Viewpoints matter, but there's no radical indeterminacy. Science analogies involving Multiverses, quantum theory, and the interference of later double-slit experiments (how choice and the act of observing affect the past and future; how probability waves collapse; loss of causality) aren't quite apt for these stories.
  • Narratology-wise, the "stories" are stable - beneath the shifting re-interpretations, there's firm ground of the real, unBarthelmean world that's discovered, not invented. There's no magic realism, no sentences halfway through a story saying "sorry, this isn't working. Let's try changing the main character to a man".
  • The means of exploration are more psychological than scientific, the explorer shaped by the exploration. Selective memories are used by people to construct their self. Similar mechanisms are used when comprehending a story (see for example "Mind, Brain and Narrative" by Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott (CUP, 2012)). Baines exploits the similarity - narratology becomes tantamount to self-analysis. Just as a reader might, after the first paragraph of a story, provisionally choose a template (one of the "seven basis plots" maybe), so a person may choose a role-model or a parent as a framework for their self. When the progress of the novel or one's life doesn't fit that framework, a decision needs to be made. The biggest decisions are those that require a change of template - Quest become Tragedy, or a father-figure's influence needs to be shaken off. Pieces of the past need to be reassembled around the new template.


  • I was supplied with a free review copy
  • I've liberally borrowed from my "Elizabeth Baines and Innovation" article
  • Rather than write reviews, I tend to produce write-ups from a fellow writer's perspective - categorizing books as useful/not-useful as often as good/bad. In this case there's some overlap - I too have had prose accepted for "Unthology", "Stand", "Horizon Review", and "Short Fiction", and my "A New Start" piece is in the same meta ballpark as some of these pieces. So I might not display the aesthetic distance that reviewers sometimes try to maintain. For the record, I think I'm more Formalist, more willing to mix genres (essay, SF), more prepared to sacrifice depth of character, less good at dialogue, at control of diction, at representing characters in conflict, and at depicting females.

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