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Book Review: Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

I bought Julia Armfield’s much-anticipated debut story collection, Salt Slow, shortly after it came out in May this year. It’s since been shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award and, with the winner due to be announced on Thursday evening, I wanted to share my thoughts on it.

In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, Salt Slow considers characters in motion – turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

Beautifully packaged by Picador, this is a fantastic collection of stories about women and their bodies, which relates their evolution in a society that resembles our own but which is also altogether darker and differs to it, or is other.

I may be long past those teenage years spent craving the company of boys as much as the main character in Mantis, the first story in the collection, but she’s also someone who suffers from a debilitating skin condition and this eczema sufferer so identified with her when she describes this: “I dream in sheddings – spend my nights sunk deep beneath sets of teeth and fingernails, the suffocation of skin cast off and left unbodied.”

If the first story chimed with me, the second only served to suggest where we might be heading, if sleep continues to be squeezed out to make room for more work and leisure activities and is no longer seen as fulfilling an essential need. “…our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities… towns that seethed with spectres, mime the permanent unsettlement of a city night” “insisting that cities could not be lived in but only haunted.” In The Great Awake, Sleeps detach from their humans, which leads to conflict between those belonging to couples, uneasy housemates and colleagues for everyone else and a source of jealousy and envy for those left without one and still able to sleep. “It was described more commonly as a phenomenon than a disaster; … an amputation of sorts, the removal of the sleep state from the body… Television became a gradual sea of doubles, of familiar faces and their silent, unaccustomed companions.” It sounds as if this is a state we could evolve into, if we continue to give sleep such low priority.

In The Collectables, three friends mark the last of them being dumped with a bonfire of the keepsakes and possessions accumulated while together with the errant boyfriend. When the dumpee begins a new collection, it escalates into something altogether more worrying. It also might make you think twice about being friendly towards relative strangers, especially if you’re a pizza delivery guy.

Formerly Feral is a brilliant nod to Angela Carter with its twisted take on a dark fairytale where a father and daughter find themselves becoming involved with a neighbour who adopts a wolf. This is one story which has really stayed with me and it’s fascinating to follow the evolving relationships between those left behind in the house, those who left the family home, and those newly moved in. Read more

Author Q&A: Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler

Image credit © Jojo Moreschi, 2018.
Image credit © Jojo Moreschi, 2018.

I’m welcoming Tom Vowler to the blog today. Tom is the author of short story collection, The Method, novels What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day and is here to talk about his latest story collection, Dazzling the Gods, which I reviewed for Wales Arts Review

Tom, you travel from Ireland to Paris, the Gaza Strip, from London to Lucca in Tuscany, and around the coast, woodland and countryside nearer to home in this collection. Is place the starting point for you when writing? 

Place can be a way into a story, yes, certainly the Paris fiction came after a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. I’m generally compelled to give the reader a ‘felt’ world, to ground and immerse themselves in, place often functioning more than just allegory or aesthetic, but as character itself, to take on meaning beyond its physicality. Proust spoke of landscape having four dimensions, the fourth being time, the places we inhabit having not just a present but a past and future. Characters must never be merely inhabitants of a place but products of it.

As I was reading, I noticed that lives and loves not fulfilling their potential is a recurring theme, with childlessness especially noticeable throughout the collection. Was this something that you wanted to explore in particular? 

Theme, for me at least, tends to emerge unconsciously, and I’m often unaware of such patterns throughout a collection until they’re highlighted by a reader. I suppose it’s hard to ever fully escape the primordial swamp of our psyche, and the short story more than most forms concerns itself with human truths more than escapism. And people who do fulfil their potential are generally dull, I find.

I hadn’t realised the prevalence of childlessness running like a seam through the collection. Oh the delight a psychoanalyst could take in trawling an author’s oeuvre.

In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, an editor works on a late author’s manuscript, someone who “troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession or one’s child.” Is this how you’d describe what you do as a writer? How would you explain it?

Very meta that story, probably too much so. I was drawn to the idea of a posthumous edit, how you might finish a manuscript for an author without demeaning it. The editor in question wrestles with this almost unreasonable task, to both second guess the author’s intentions and to remain consistent to the aesthetic course charted.

I do concern myself with fiction at a sentence level, yes, regarding them as units of energy that must function at optimum efficiency, neither over- nor under-written. I loathe writing that seems to merely borrow language as a basic tool with which to build the story, as if it had no significance in its own right. The best writing is troubled into existence, functioning on myriad levels, from the pragmatic to the sublime. Read more

In Search of Short Stories

(Some of) my collection of short story collections
(Some of) my collection of short story collections

November is traditionally the month of NaNoWriMo for many writers (good luck to all of you taking part!) but for me, this year it’s all about the short story. I’m in the second week of a five-week Short Fiction Masterclass and, around doing this, I’m spending time reading stories from those collections I own. Having gathered some of them together (not pictured are collections by Margaret Atwood or William Trevor), I realise this reading spree is going to take me on past the five, now four remaining weeks of the course!

I’ve just added The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico (not pictured) thanks to her shortlisting for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award 2017. But I want to hear from you and know what you’d recommend I read. Do you have a favourite short story or short story collection? Is it one of those pictured* above? Let me know what it is by leaving a comment below.

*If you have trouble reading some of the titles, click on the picture for a slightly clearer image.

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