Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

Swimming in a Sea of DeathA while ago I pulled a pile of novellas and other short books off my shelves, intending to do an intensive reading weekend. As it turned out, for reasons I forget, I only finished one book – and that book was David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death: a Son’s Memoir (2008). I’d bought it on a whim in Oxford’s £2 bookshop (now under the similar, but crucially different, name of £3 bookshop), with the assumption that I’d probably never actually get around to reading it. Yes, I should question my purchasing decision. But, in this case, I was wrong – and it was on my shelves for just under two years before making the cut.

Oh, and there is a quotation from Oliver Sacks on the front. I think I’d forgotten that, but it must have made me more likely to buy it in the first place; nobody writes about difficult subjects more sensitively than Sacks.

In case (like me) you didn’t know, David Rieff is Susan Sontag’s son. And I’m going to assume you know who Susan Sontag is, but, if you don’t, her Wikipedia page will fill you in. And it’s best to know about her beforehand, because we learn surprisingly little about Sontag from Rieff’s memoir. Because it isn’t really a memoir of her life. I’ve read a couple of books about grief – C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, which I wrote about together – both of which were as much about life (and/or theology) as they were about death. Rieff’s book really is swimming in a sea of death – the gruelling and cruel process of Sontag dying from leukemia, and his own anger, helplessness, and frustration. Which made it both a difficult book to read, and a very focused one.

Rieff’s anger is not just at the cruelties of fate but at the insensitivity of certain doctors and unhelpfulness of the information provided. His narrative moves between documenting the failing health of his mother, the ineptitude of certain parts of the medical system, and a broader philosophy of dying. Or perhaps not a philosophy of dying so much as an attempt to make an abstract sense of what was happening. Not a conclusive sense, understandably, but a way of formulating his thoughts and response.

How to reconcile the reality of human mortality with the reigning assumption in the rich world that every disease must have a cure, if not now then sometime in the future? The logic of the former is the acceptance of death. But the logic of the latter is that death is somehow a mistake, and that someday that mistake will be rectified.

And…

How, above all if you struggled to find the right doctors, and braved the most gruesome treatments, can you really say to yourself that none of this really had much to do with why you were still walking on the earth rather than dissolving under it? It is hard enough for any cancer patient to really resist the idea that some failure on his or her own part brought the illness on. After all, Reichian explanations of psychological repression causing cancer have in our time tended to give way to explanation based on one’s having eaten the wrong foods, the basis of such self-blame, and the assumption that the cancer patient is in a deep sense the author of his or her own disease is still very much in the air.

You can understand why I feel ill-equipped to write very much about this book – both because I have experienced nothing similar myself, and because – well – how can one write about it? (Yet somehow I managed with Simon Stephenson’s excellent Let Not The Waves of the Sea.)

What do we learn about Sontag? There was this tantalising tid-bit that I wish had been developed further…

She told me more than once that she believed that hope and will had been all she had to see herself through her alienated childhood, get herself out of the Southwest and on to the University of Chicago, where, at seventeen, she agreed to marry my father after knowing him for a little more than a week. Seven years later, that same sense of being able to remake her life no matter the obstacles – and not just remake it but also to make version two, or three, or four better than their predecessors – had given her the strength to extricate herself from the marriage.

Rieff iterates the description that she is ‘someone who loved reason (and, more crucially, loathed appeals to the subjective)’ – or words to that effect – throughout. I find people who loathe the subjective completely inexplicable – life is subjective! – and no characteristic ignores me more than those who use ‘logic’ as a cover for not considering emotion. All of which meant that I had the interesting experience of reading about the terrible circumstances surrounding a woman whose outlook on life was poles apart from mine; I couldn’t rely on natural empathy, which made the book all the more fascinating and moving to read, somehow. (Incidentally, Rieff mentions towards the end ‘I have preferred to write as little as possible of my relations with my mother in the last decade of her life, but suffice it to say that they were often strained and at times very difficult.‘)

So I didn’t come away from Swimming in a Sea of Death feeling the way I did to C.S. Lewis’s wife, Simon Stephenson’s brother, or Calvin Trillin’s wife; it’s not that sort of book. Rather, it shows precisely how witnessing dying and death are transformative experiences for a relative even when there isn’t a great relationship, and (obviously to a lesser degree) for an observing reader, even when the reader does not instinctively warm to the person in question.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Since I’ve got a review copy of Lila on my shelves (the third of Robinson’s novels to concern the good people of Gilead), I thought it was about time that I read Home (the second, from 2008, after 2004’s Gilead). When I read Gilead, I was completely bowled over. How could an elderly minister’s reminiscences create such a stunning work of fiction? On the strength of one book, Robinson became the living writer I admired the most. A subsequent read of Housekeeping did nothing to diminish this, and reading Home has cemented her position. Nobody else holds a candle to her.

Home covers much of the same time period as Gilead, although it is not a requirement to have read the former before you read the latter. Indeed, it would be interesting to read all three of this series in various orders – it’s been so long since I read Gilead that I have forgotten a lot of it, so it was a bit like coming to the characters for the first time. And, indeed, different characters take centre stage. While Gilead is narrated by the Rev. John Ames, Home looks at his neighbour’s house. Ames’ closest friend, Rev. Robert Broughton, is old and ailing. His wife has died, and he is looked after by the only child who has remained at home – Glory, a spinster who is kind, good, and a little regretful. The novel sees how they cope with the return, after twenty years, of Glory’s wastrel brother Jack.

His return will be familiar to readers of Gilead, and Ames certainly did not approve of him, but seeing him through the eyes of his family is a different matter. Glory is some years younger than him, separated by several siblings, and never felt that she knew him very well. Robert has longed for him to return – their dynamic is very much that of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father – but even his patience and hope have their limits.

It’s very difficult to talk about great writers, or to pinpoint what makes them great. Home details the awkwardness of people who are biologically very close and emotionally very distant, but not through arguments or slamming doors. Instead (and no author does this better) Robinson shows us the silences – the emotions that family members cannot discuss, the past hurts they cannot confront, and the future hopes they dare not express. All the more impressive that this is done in the third person, so – although it feels like we know all three key players intimately – we are never actually taken into their perspective wholly. Being very close to my nuclear family, particularly my brother, I can’t quite understand the awkwardness of Glory and Jack’s relationship, but (being a family of introverts) I can understand the reluctance to discuss depths of emotions – and yet communicating them at the same time.

Like Gilead, there is a background of faith to the novel. But, where Gilead is a beautiful depiction of a life of faith, Glory is a little less certain. She seems occupied more with duty and goodness than with grace, try as she might. She sums up the theme of the book while musing on the Bible:

What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world, how endlessly creation wrenched and strained under the burden of its own significance. “I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.” Yes there it was, the parable of manna. All bread is the bread of heaven, her father used to say. It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it mean to come home.
‘Home’ is, unsurprisingly, the biggest quandary in Home. What makes a home? What does it mean to come home?  For Glory, home is a place of safety and continuity, but also a place of disappointment and a sense of failure. For Jack, it is a mirage and somehow dangerous. For Robert, it is chiefly an ideal in his mind.

One of the loveliest things in both this novel and Gilead is the friendship between neighbouring ministers. Friendship is depicted so seldom in literature, and it is touching to see one that has proved far more constant and successful than romantic or paternal relationships. And for readers like me who dearly love Ames, it is a joy to see him again – albeit frustrating at how little we see of him! Not to mention illuminating to see a different vantage of a man that any reader of Gilead will know intimately. It’s like hearing your best friend described by somebody who only knows them a little.

I quote this passage partly because Ames is in it, but mostly because it’s a lovely example of how beautifully Robinson writes a domestic scene:

Then Ames arrived with Lila and Roddy, the three of them in their church clothes, and she took her father into the parlor with them, the company parlor, where they sat on the creaky chairs no one ever sat on. It had been almost forgotten that the were not there just to be dismally ornamental, chairs only in the sense that the lamp stand was a shepherdess. Ames was clearly bemused by the formality her father had willed upon the occasion. The room was filled with those things that seem to exist so that children can be forbidden to touch them – porcelain windmills and pagodas and china dogs – and Robby’s eyes were bright with suppressed attraction to them.
Home has so many nuances and is so rich in insight that it would be futile to go much further. I don’t love it as much as Gilead – perhaps because I missed the first-person voice that Robinson handles so extraordinarily – but I am still amazed by what a great work it is. Sometimes I wonder which writer from our time will be remembered in future generations and centuries. If there is any justice in posterity, Robinson will be among that number.

The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman

Can we be superficial for a moment?  This cover is amazing.  I love it so much.  I’ve had a hunt through the paperback to try to work out who designed it, and failed, but kudos to him or her.

I read Ned Beauman’s first novel (Boxer, Beetle) shortly before meeting him at a Sceptre party – thanks Sceptre for sending me this one too! – and was very pleasantly surprised.  I don’t think there is any way in which I could have been sold a book about boxing, beetles, and Nazis which would have made me think I might like it – but it was brilliant, energetically and stylishly written, and utterly captivating.  I was even lucky enough to interview him about it.  So, when The Teleportation Accident (2012) came out and got longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I was naturally rather keen to read it… and lax enough that I’ve only just finished it.  Writing about a novel that’s a couple of years ago can feel more dated than writing about one from a hundred years ago, so I hope you will forgive the indulgence.

The Teleportation Accident is one of those novels which demands either a shortish review or an enormous one.  I can simply enthuse about Beauman’s extraordinary imagination and scope, or I can begin to try and explain how that is manifested… and the latter would end up taking thousands of words.  There is just so much in the novel; it’s a real tour de force.  Boxer, Beetle showed that Beauman could meld together disparate and surreal elements into a coherent and entertaining narrative – The Teleportation Accident does more of the same.

Even the title itself refers to various layers.  A 17th-century Parisian set designed, Adriano Lavicini, destroys a theatre and kills dozens after his teleportation device tears apart a theatre.  A scientist in 1930s America tries to replicate the device.  And the main character of the novel – a German called Egon Loeser, whose main preoccupation is how seldom he has sex – is fascinated with Lavicini.

Sound complicated?  I haven’t even started on the people pretending to attach monkey glands to people’s necks for health reasons, the macabre serial killer, the man suffering from an extreme form of agnosia, the film director with a secret, and the curiously named (but very beautiful) Adele Hitler…

How does Beauman make it all work?  I don’t know, but he does.  After an opening few paragraphs which make a solid attempt at Kundera-esque postmodern semiotics, he settles down into a prose style which is equal parts verve and pizazz.  I sometimes wondered (with both novels) if he folded up bits of paper with surreal things on them, pulled some out of a hat, and dared himself to write a novel joining them all up.  Well, he wins the dare.  Somehow the tone remains consistent throughout – I think it is that unchanging sense of style, as well as the very grounded, fairly carnal preoccupations of Loeser – which allow a mad box of novelistic tricks to succeed as a single entity.

It also helps that Beauman seems to be having a lot of fun (although I’m sure it was also a lot of hard work).  Here’s a paragraph I jotted down – I’m not a fan of sci-fi, but I loved the way he wrote about teleportation:

The point is, you can’t just delete the subject in one place and create a copy in another.  If you did that to a human being, all you’d be doing is murdering someone and replacing them with a clone a few minutes old.  That way, no one who believed in a soul – like my parents, for instance – would ever be willing to set foot in a teleportation device.  So instead you have to move the object itself, really move it.  But it can’t move through the intervening space.  It has to be in one place, and then, snap!  Suddenly in another.  It has to change its position all at once.  Well, what’s position, anyway?  It’s not a function of space.  There’s no more such a thing as space than there’s such a thing as the ether.  Space is just objects, and position is a function of those objects.  So if you can – the Professor always warns me against the Pathetic Fallacy, but it’s so hard to avoid sometimes – if you can make an object forget its old position, and then persuade it of its new position, then that’s teleportation.  But how do you do that?  
Ultimately, teleportation is a hook to hang the novel on.  I found I didn’t much care whether or not the machine (indeed, the various machines) actually worked.  I wasn’t even hugely invested in what happened to Loeser – I was invested in the zany rollercoaster on which the novel took me.  Even events which, in the hands of a less talented writer, would be sordid seemed to me simply surreal and part of the vivid, myriad pattern of The Teleportation Accident.

Although he is Nicola Beauman’s son, his novels could scarcely be more different from those published by Persephone – and yet I love both.  I am ultimately very attracted to a novelist who has a vast imagination, and (crucially) knows how to control it and use it very wisely.  Beauman is that novelist.

Somewhere Towards the End – Diana Athill

I’m over at Vulpes Libris at the moment, with a review of Somewhere Towards the End (2008) by Diana Athill.  It does fit in my new century, but I actually finished it at the end of 2013.  I did like a lot of it, but struggled with some of it, and my review is mostly about what I struggled with… which I found difficult to explore and express properly, but valued trying!  Head over and read it, if you so wish, here.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves – Jacques Bonnet

My friend Clare has struck gold again with Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which she got me for my birthday a month ago.  Admittedly it was on my Amazon wishlist (and thus must have been mentioned by someone in the blogosphere… was it you?) but girl still done good.  I’ve added it to my 50 Books You Must Read About not simply because it’s wonderful, but because it is so perfect a book for the bibliophile blogger.

Published in 2008 in French, and translated by Siân Reynolds in 2010, Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a sort of memoir and sort of essay collection about what it is like to live with and love books – but on a scale few of us can imagine.  Bonnet is the proud owner of several tens of thousands of books – about 40,000, if memory serves – and talks about people with similar numbers of books as though they were in secret fraternity, which is rather adorable.  Better yet, he is first and foremost a reader, and his books reflect that:

I’m talking about a working library, the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read them in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read – including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title – as well as the ones you mean to read one day.  A non-specialist library, or rather one specialized in so many areas that it becomes a general one.
People who collect books primarily for their value, or who think a first edition is infinitely preferable to a tenth, are anathema to the whole-hearted lover of reading – I could empathise so much with Bonnet, although I have no plans to have a library quite as large as his.  I can see myself getting to ten thousand, though, especially if I use Bonnet as my conscience – he has the delightful habit of many bloggers I know; being able to justify any and all book purchases.  I’m sure some of you are longing to write in the comments about betraying libraries or cutting down trees or the lust of avarice, but Phantoms on the Bookshelves is not a book for common sense responses, it is a book for illogical aspiration and unashamed book-adoration.

But practicality is certainly not left behind.  I love reading about the ways in which people organise their bookshelves, and this is all the more important if books are likely to disappear forever if disorganised.  Bonnet writes fascinatingly about finding space for big collections, and about the various schemes he has considered for his own collection – which reveals it to be far broader than I can boast.  He worries about where to put authors born in Yugoslavia, now that it no longer exists, what to do with his Frisian books, and all sorts of other considerations which my largely-British largely-literary library has never really had to worry about.

His chapters on not just on organising bookshelves, of course. He writes wonderfully about reading itself (‘every time you open a book for the first time, there is something akin to safe-breaking about it’), about diaries, dictionaries, destitute authors, and – heartbreakingly – those libraries lost to destruction.  Not just Alexandria and the like, but personal libraries lost to fire, and what the possessors did afterwards.  Bonnet also suggests – another way in which these bookshelves are filled with phantoms – that the enormous library is possibly a doomed creature:

we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them.  This little book is being written from a continent which is about to be lost forever
He blames e-readers, I think, but perhaps the premium of space will also play its part.  But I can’t see why there wouldn’t still be just as many people who can afford to have this luxury as there were before…

The mark of a great book about books is whether or not familiarity with the titles mentioned matters.  One of the reasons I love and cherish Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing is because so many of the authors she writes about mean something to me, either through having read or meaning to read.  I love Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, but tend to skim bits about Borges (and love the bits about Lewis Carroll).  Well, Jacques Bonnet mentioned maybe one book I’d read, and another couple I’d heard of, and it didn’t matter at all.  Even though a sizeable portion of the books mentioned have never been translated out of French, I still loved reading about them.  That’s impressive work, Monsieur Bonnet.

I name-checked Manguel there (and a review of A Reader on Reading is forthcoming) – I love his books, but not in the same way that I love Phantoms on the Bookshelves.  Manguel is a great reader, of course, but he is almost always scholarly at the same time – Jacques Bonnet is more like the friendly face at your book group who will enthuse about managing to squeeze another bookcase into the corner of the living room.  More of a bibliophile friend, in general.  Phantoms on the Bookshelves certainly isn’t a philistines’ book by any means, but nor does it alienate with erudition.  It would be another perfect Christmas gift for the bibliophile in your life (or to drop heavy hints about) – it was the perfect birthday gift for me.

A Year of Mornings

The book publication I’ve been most eagerly awaiting is one with almost no words. Which might not say much for Stuck-in-a-Book’s literary credentials, but perhaps you’ll understand when I tell you what the book is…

I’ve eulogised about the blog 3191 before – this post could scarcely be bettered by a teenage girl waving pom-poms and screaming ‘Oh my gawwsh, they’re so, like, awesome!’ For those who haven’t come across their blog, either pop over there and have a look, or go to my post linked above to read what they do. In brief, two people living 3191 miles apart took photos every morning and posted them alongside each other – now they do the same in the evening. Beautiful and unexpected coincidences, symmetries, contrasts would appear – both are brilliant photographers, focusing on the details of normal, domestic life.

So I first in line to Princeton Architectural Press to ask for a review copy, when I found out that A Year of Mornings was going to be published in book format. And it’s delicious. The book is out in the US at the beginning of October (though their blog suggests it’s out now, so maybe they know best) and out on Amazon.co.uk a bit later – though the date there is changing every now and then. Keep an eye out. The pictures aren’t done quite how I expected – the photos are done in pairs, as on the blog, but the sets of two aren’t all the same size, and are at odd positions over the pages. It kinda works, but sometimes means my favourite pairs are rather small (20th June is perhaps my favourite, but honourable mention must go to 11th July) – but this is a small quibble.

Mav and Steph, with Princeton Architectural Press on design, have created a truly beautiful, wonderful book of photographs which demonstrate talent without being pretentious or off-putting. This would make a lovely coffee table book, or a great gift, and I can’t thank Karen/Cornflower enough for pointing me in the direction of their blog over a year ago.

Welly-Throwing

Today’s title is one of the suggestions I’ve had, in the face of Readers’ Block (or, since I’m just one person, Reader’s Block) – I *think* I did do welly-throwing – or welly-wanging – at a village fete once, but I’m probably not ready to take it up as an Olympic sport just yet. So I’ll carry on trying to shift the block, and get back to my normal Stuck position. Annoyingly, a headache has been added to the mix. On the bright side, today I completed my European Computer Driving Licence, which can be stuck squarely onto my CV, though it would be an exaggeration to say I yet understood Access or the finer workings of Excel. Part of the amusement of the course was trying to unlearn everything since about 1998, when the test was made. Formating a floppy disk, anyone?

The book I’m currently reading bits of here and there is The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which I bought when meeting online friends in London. It’s ‘a memoir, a history’ of Buzbee’s life with books – working in a bookshop, working as a publisher’s sales rep, just generally living and loving books – and interspersed with this is the history of books and booksellers. What a lot of times the word ‘book’ was in that sentence – what’s the opposite of aversion therapy? The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop isn’t overly sentimental, since Buzbee has had to understand the commodity aspect of books, but he speaks with a voice which every booklover will recognise and respond to:

When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher’s sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn’t I be blase about it all by now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store’s displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the days’ weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain – books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is materially beautiful, with deckled edges and thick paper, but much more significant is the kindred spirit you’ll find inside. If anything can make me remember how much I love books, this should do it.

Halfway to Venus

Halfway to Venus sounds like a Science Fiction novel… but when the Venus in question is of the de Milo variety, things become clear. I don’t know how to introduce this non-fiction book, as… well, it is about living with one arm, and the history of amputation in literature and reality. But Sarah Anderson, the author, says how much she hates to be thought of as “the woman with one arm” – and Halfway to Venus shouldn’t simply be labelled “the book by the woman with one arm”.

Sarah Anderson (pictured below, in a photograph by John Swannell) had synovial sarcoma, a variety of cancer, as a child – which led her to have her left arm amputated at the age of ten. ‘I recall feeling that if I could only put into words how much I didn’t want this to happen, they would have to listen to me; and the fact that I obviously hadn’t been eloquent enough I saw as some kind of failure on my part.’ Anderson’s coping strategy, she writes, was not mentioning it; assuming others couldn’t notice. Amazingly, Sarah was 19 before she asked her parents, “What happened to my arm?” The central strand of Halfway to Venus narrates her experiences whilst growing up, and also career-wise and relationship-wise – from the travel bookshop which proved inspiration for Notting Hill to potential ‘acrotomophiles’, who are attracted to ‘amputees’. In fact, much of Anderson’s examination is not herself, but others – a refrain throughout is that other people are the major issue; trying to anticipate their reactions, but resenting having to be the one to smooth things along.

This, as I said, is the central thread – but Halfway to Venus is so much more. I was a little uncertain about reading the book, lest it be simply misery lit. of the variety which pervades all bookshops, but nothing could be further from the truth. Anderson embarks upon a fascinating and very readable history of amputation, lack of limbs, and the arm and hand as considered through time. As long ago as AD 80, Quintilian wrote ‘other portions of the body merely help the speaker, whereas the hands may almost be said to speak’ So many facts leapt from the page – did you know, for instance, that nine out of ten people can’t identify their own hand from a selection of photographs?
Woven alongside Anderson’s autobiographical narrative, and this anatomical history, are excerpts from many other books, mostly autobiographical, concerning life without certain limbs or hands or feet. These offer a rich collection of viewpoints – and, unsurprisingly, those writing them are as different from each other as any other selection of people. Anderson’s own feelings towards her amputated arm aren’t clear cut either – sometimes she writes that she hates any reference being made; at other times she appreciates the directness of Americans she met. She enjoys participating in a One-Armed Dove Hunt (!!), but usually avoids any such grouping. A few things baffled me – she, and many others, consider prosphetics as trying to ‘be something you’re not’. I wear glasses – further down the spectrum, but still a prosphetic, in as much as it gives my eyes sight they wouldn’t have in my unaided state. Where can the line be drawn?

It is to Anderson’s credit that Halfway to Venus brings out so many questions and reflections and reactions. A very honest book of autobiography, it is also a fascinating compedium, and with an engaging writing style which is all too often omitted from well-researched non-fiction.

Before I go, must just mention a new blog – Oxford-reader – as you can see, from the same hallowed city as Stuck-in-a-Book, and with many of the same tastes. Do go along and toast her addition to the blogosphere.

Shorter Than Fiction

It’s always difficult to review collections of short stories, or even consider them in one’s mind effectively. Should they be treated as ten or twenty separate works, or as one work? Sometimes there is an obvious linking style – as with Katherine Mansfield, say – which makes every narrative unmistakably by the same author, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason why. Other writers, like Clare Wigfall (whose The Loudest Sound and Nothing I talked about last August) have a huge variety and range in their style. I don’t think either approach is intrinsically superior, but the former is lot easier to make generalisations about!

Two short story writers have sent me their debut collections recently, both of whom are rather prolific and much-published in various publications. Balancing on the Edge of the World by Elizabeth Baines, and Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie. I think the best way to chat about these books is to pick the story from each which I most enjoyed, and which is fairly representative, and use that as a starting point.

The blurb to Baines’ Balancing on the Edge of the Worlds says the stories are all about power – the keeping, losing, grasping or relinquishing of it. That’s probably as unifying a theme as any, but it’s probably easier to suggest a unifying style. Baines’ writing has a soothing softness to it, but somehow each story feels haunted and uneasy, until a turn (nothing so histrionic as a ‘twist’, if you can see the difference) justifies this foreboding. But even with uneasiness, and occasional tragedy, that softness remains.

The story I wanted to pick out is ‘Compass and Torch’ – in the third person, an uncertain boy on a trip with his Dad, whom he doesn’t often see. ‘The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dad.’ The awkwardness of their relationship – with its latent closeness, and surface of discomfort – is portrayed so exactly. We see it first in relation to the torch, of which the boy is so anxiously proud:

The boy is chattering: ‘Have you brought one too, have you brought a torch?’ ‘Oh, yes!’ Is this a problem? the boy suddenly wonders. Does this make one of the torches redundant? For a brief moment he is uncertain, potentially dismayed, a mood which the man, for all his distraction, catches. ‘We can use both of them, can’t we, Dad?’ ‘Oh yes! Yes, of couse!’ Then a swoop of delight: ‘We can light up more with both, can’t we?’ ‘Oh yes, certainly!’ The man too is gratefully caught on a wave of triumph. ‘Oh, yes, two are definitely better! Back-up, for a start.’
I shouldn’t dream of telling you the end of this story, except that it is done calmly in a couple of sentences, and won’t leave your mind for some time. Baines’ stories are executed with a subtle smoothness, and a precise portrayal of human relationships – both the surface of them, and what goes on underneath. A great debut.

Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie has an equally varied group of scenarios, narrators and themes – but her voice is rather harsher, more concerned with the gritty and the earthy. Occasionally a quieter voice creeps through, which leaves one staring at the page at the sheer pathos Gebbie can create. ‘The Kettle on the Boat’, for instance, where parents quietly take their Inuit daughter away on a boat; she narrates the journey, and leave her for adoption: “If I am not there to help, how will Mama know when the fish are ready?”

The one I wanted to point to, though, is ‘Cactus Man’. ‘The Kettle on the Boat’ was my favourite, but ‘Cactus Man’ is perhaps more representative. ‘Spike’, an enthusiast and collector of cacti , wants to discover his real name because he is getting married. He visits a social worker who can look through his files and tell him.

‘I was saying how unusual your case is.’ ‘Can’t be doing with too much usual.’ ‘Sorry?’ ‘We feed off being unusual, us lot.’ ‘Oh, I see’.

The story is one of muted disappointment, understated grief and an eventual path of hope for Spike. Gebbie is at her most subtle here, and manages to evoke the lives of her central characters completely, visualised through the stilted attempts of Spike to gain a firmer grasp on his identity. There is nothing so saccharine as a ‘love conquers all’ message here (however true that may be) but a sense that hope can be found amongst fragility and discouragement.

Both collections are published by Salt Publishing.