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, 2 January 2016

"The Pre-War House and other stories" by Alison Moore (Salt, 2013)

Stories of length 3 to 50 pages (263 pages in total), several from "The New Writer", and some from "Ambit", "The Warwick Review" and many anthologies.

I've read "When the door closed, it was dark" somewhere before. I like it, except that I found the ending too open. It has a rare instance of imagery - "the iron staircase which zigzagged up the front of the building like the teeth of her mother's pinking shears or a child's drawing of lightning". I liked "The Egg" - early on we learn of the main character that "In the bathroom, his wet footprints are already evaporating from the tiled floor". I liked "The Machines", especially the ending, though in a story about noise, is "far cry" in "It is a far cry from the peace of her childhood home" supposed to be so punny? The punchline of "Static" makes it into a good story. I'm impressed by "Sometimes you think you are alone", the title suiting a story in the 2nd person where the 1st person makes a decisive appearance.

In the title story/novella the narrator's spending her last night in the family home, alone, before workmen come to empty it out. Leit-motifs are relentlessly repeated. Here's the first paragraph -

In the front garden, in the narrow beds, the flowers which emerged in what felt like the days of spring lie buried beneath the late snow, their opening buds like small mouths gaping in shock, their stems broken.

Later,

She was blossoming, said our mother. Our father looked at her disapprovingly, as if she were something overgrown in his carefully tended garden, a corner found going wild; as if she were something overripe in his vegetable plot, with a distasteful maturing pungency which got right up his nose

Later,

I stood nearby, watching, and he turned to me and said, 'We used to drown kittens, the unwanted litters of cats on heat.'

Bluebells still come up, every spring. They are not yet out this year, but the bulbs are down there, deep in the earth, their green shoots aching for the daylight.
And there are eggs, buried in the soil, waiting for the warmer weather, when they will hatch

There are doubts about parentage, revelations foreshadowed symbolically

'When your father met your mother, he was engaged to a lovely girl.'
While she talked, I gathered up the unravelling wool, balling it, trying to keep it neat. My grandmother unpicked a white button at the neck, and I realised that this was my mother's blue jumper, losing its shape and coming apart in her hands.

The barberry bush is symbolic too, more than at first thought. I wondered how the narrator learnt about the circumstances relating to it on p.261-2. The grandmother perhaps. The treatment might come over as heavy-handed, or as poetic. I think it's over-larded in places but by and large I liked it.

I like the handling of the episodic style of "Nurture" but not so much its ending. "Jetsam" had good passages - e.g. on p.90. "A Small Window" is ok. "Helicopter Jane" and "Trees in the Tarmac" shuffle by now standard components.

A few stories didn't work for me - "Glory Hole" (because of the ending), "Humming and Pinging" (ending too closed), "Seclusion", "Sleeping Under the Stars", "Monsoon Puddles" (because of the ending), "It Has Happened Before", "The Yacht Man", "The Smell of the Slaughterhouse" and "Small animals". "Wink wink" rather overdoes the theme, as do "If there's anything left" and "Late" (the latter having too obvious an ending).

The style's very show-not-tell, so it was a surprise to see "The boy was impressed" in "The Egg". Even when there's a first-person narrator there's little introspection or self-analysis (sometimes justified by the narrator's youth). If the main character's female, there's often a man distanced by language problems or cultural/generational differences. There's frequent scraping, parents' houses, the aftermath of a parent's death, women recently separated, men living alone - absence in general. There are several stories where a theme (noise, running, etc) is highlighted, and the psychological problem is sneaked in around a page or so - e.g. "While you run, you listen to music, always the same C60 tape, a compilation your boyfriend made for you, before he left you", p.147. I think "climbs slowly down the stairs" (p.136) is correct usage, though climbing down rather than up sounds strange.

Together, the stories somewhat weaken each other. That said, half a dozen of them are excellent.

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