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 16 April 2016

"Sweet Home" by Carys Bray (Windmill books, 2016)

This was first published by Salt in 2012. It contains stories from MsLexia etc. Most are about 10 pages long, though some are much shorter. There are many troubled parent-offspring relationships, several ill/trauma'd kids and people who like order in their lives. It's common for parents to flashback to their childhood, to compare themselves with their parents. In "Bodies", Dad speaks. "'The world is full of tragedy,' he said, shaking his head sadly, as if the world was nothing to do with us.", p.147. That tone could apply to many of the pieces. Sometimes the main character who's under strain doesn't reveal the extent of their problems. An alternative viewpoint (their memories, or the viewpoint of someone else) makes the situation more stark. In "Cover all" for example, we learn that the main character is rather obsessed in covering things up, but we learn more from the 2 girls watching her from a window as they negotiate their friendship - "And Louisa smiles as she hides under the covers". In general I like how children's PoVs are handled.

In "Love: terms and conditions" a visit to grandparents is described. On the journey back, we're told (I'm unsure why) that the children "have grown up in a family where love doesn't track a base rate of obedience. There are no Terms and Conditions to our affections, which has left them utterly unprepared for the measured, auditing love of their grandparents" (p.127). At home, the mother makes a snowman in the night (she wasn't allowed to as a kid) but the rest of the family aren't interested, even next day. The mother realises, in sequence, that she loves each of her 3 children best. Sometimes on the strength of one story, you buy a collection. This one has almost the opposite effect on me.

The title story looks rather like another predictable re-telling of a fairy tale. In "On the way home" there's a succession of points-of-view, a relay. I like "The ice baby". I like "Wooden Mum" (she has an Asperger's son). I like the more obviously constructed stories -

  • "Scaling never" - Jacob's young sister, Issy, dies of meningitis. His father takes the funeral service. Jacob's confused about miracles. He unearths a bird that he and her sister buried. At the end "He wishes that Sister Anderson would bring magic beans to Primary instead of mustard seeds. He wishes he could plant the magic beans at the bottom of the garden behind the hedge, and watch an enormous stalk twist and stretch skyward. And even though Dad says that heaven is not actually in the sky, he wishes he could climb the stalk right up into the clouds and find Issy. That would be ace.". Bodies" is another child-PoV story where a child with religious parents struggles with the concept of death.
  • "Bed rest" - "The curtains go shush as they horseshoe around, hiding us in a thick pocket. I stare at the curtains, rather than the incubator. They are criss-crossed with local landmarks in green and beige. They must have been made specially. It costs so much to watch television in hospital nowadays. In Exeter you can watch the curtains instead.". The baby's about to die. The mother thinks back to when her mother was having a difficult pregnancy. Her father had slapped her, then feeling guilty, bought her a doll which soon fell over the side of a ferry that's depicted on the curtains. Her brother, the outcome of her mother's difficult pregnancy, hasn't turned up.

There are some (often extended) metaphors that make me wince, but that's personal taste -

  • "Another laugh wings her throat and she clips it to stop the tears that are fluttering close behind", p.5
  • "'I'm not on holiday,' I replied, rummaging through the pockets of my head, trying to find her name", p.15
  • "in the grotto of his heart, he knows that he is engaged in a much harder operation. // In the beginning he thought the rescue would be easy. Equipped with a Say-No-to-Drugs book and audiocassette, he set out to winch his son to safety", p.36
  • "she knows he visits the son as well. She observes the changes in his vital signs: the wretchedness before the visits; the flatlining afterwards, and she is ready with defibrillating cups of tea on his return", p.38
  • "She sucked up emotion like a vacuum cleaner. At times she was puffed with it", p.100. "She has soaked up all the grief around us like a piece of blotting paper", p.103.

There are some phrases that don't work for me -

  • "He creates miserable montages of her mothering misdemeanours", p.59
  • "He was happy. His love for Asta zigzagged through his chest like an icicle", p.141

Other reviews

  • Simon Savidge
  • Jane Housham (Here babies are like dolls and dolls like babies)
  • Valerie O’Riordan (a couple are very much in the line of fairy-tales; and, in the same vein as Helen Simpson (whose Hey Yeah Right Get A Life is the stand-out influence here), Bray eschews the sentimentalisation of children and childhood, so that there’s a dark, melancholic edge to several of the stories that very much rings true to life. ... The two that impressed me most were ‘Under Covers’ and ‘Love: Terms and Conditions’.)
  • Stuart Kelly ( have to confess I read many of these stories with a catch in my throat. It is not simply that much of the subject matter – a premature child, a bereavement, a parent's dementia, a son's spiral into addiction – is inherently affecting. Rather it is Bray's supreme control over the prose, which has a quality both lapidary and tremulous)
  • Richard T. Watson (Every story is lovingly-crafted and a genuine pleasure to read ... Unusually for a short story collection, there are no stories that stand out as weaker than any of the others. ... Bray’s stylistic signature is probably her trick of giving the reader a little detail and letting that half-sentence stand in for a wealth of lived experience. )

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