Separated from the Sea: a review

Separated from the SeaIn the UK, the short story had its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century, but more recently there’s been a tendency to treat it with caution – an almost anxious feeling each time you start a new story that there’ll be characters you’ve never met, in unfamiliar scenarios. Like being invited to a party where you don’t know anyone. You don’t have the comparative safety of the novel where the author leads you gently by the hand from one chapter to the next, developing the narrative. But, in this age of soundbites and instant gratification, I’m happy to say the short form is quietly being resurrected as a flexible, relevant vehicle for narrative. As in this collection of accessible short stories from new indy publisher Retreat West.

 
Amanda Huggins is an experienced and widely-published fiction writer and has won awards for her travel writing but Separated from the Sea is her first full collection of short stories. Her skill at world-building makes getting to grips with new characters and new settings very easy for the reader – she makes you equally at home in the urban sprawl of Tokyo, in a lonely seaside town in Yorkshire or in a bar in New York. With just a few killer sentences she hooks you into a new world. There are some flawless little stories here – imaginative and concise, which are the basic requirements of a successful short story. Just a couple are less well thought out than others and would have benefitted from more redrafting, but in a collection like this I didn’t mind; like eating a packet of Revels (I may be in a minority here) the pleasure is always heightened by knowing a few of them will be the ones you don’t like (chocolate peanuts in my case).

 
Themes include: decisions made then abandoned, women leaving men and branching out on their own, failing relationships, loneliness, dealing with grief at losing a father, and other losses. The sea as in the title story features in several of these richly-imagined stories. The writing is taut and no word is wasted. In Already Formed a woman dealing with the end of an affair finds out the baby she’s hoped for is ‘not even a line on a pregnancy test.’ The Last of Michiko shows a widower gradually coming to terms with his loss: when a friend gives him a jar of what she claims is his wife’s homemade bean jam ‘He knew it was not Michiko’s; he knew it was a deception. But he understood it was meant as a kind one.’ And in Edgware there are beautiful images from the narrator’s travels: ‘silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes.’

 
These entertaining short stories are perfect for a summer holiday, a short commute or for your bedside reading.

 

 

Review: The Trick to Time

The Trick to Time.pngFollowing the huge success of her first novel, My Name is Leon (described by the Guardian as a “touching, thought-provoking debut) Kit de Waal’s new novel The Trick to Time is even more ambitious. And already long-listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize. For anyone honing their craft, it’s also an object lesson in that tired trope of creative writing classes: ‘show don’t tell’.

This time her narrator is not a young boy, but a middle-aged woman. Mona (short for Desdemona) is from Ireland and lives a quiet, lonely life in a seaside town in England where a carpenter makes the dolls that she dresses (upcycling charity shop clothes) to sell in her own shop.

She can look at a silk blouse with a satin cuff and see what it might turn into, which doll might wear it and how she might take it apart.

Now approaching her 60th birthday, Mona has complex memories and very mixed feelings. Her mother died when she was a child so she was brought up by her father. The image of the young girl playing on the beach in Ireland while her mother is ill in bed is only one of many memorable images in this heart-breaking novel:

Sand as soft as powder all around the wide curve of the bay. She splashes and plays and gets her sandals wet and stays away for hours… at seven or eight children can be heartless.

In a richly evocative and subtly nuanced story about the aftermath of terrible and ordinary losses: parents, a husband, a baby, the trick to time of the title is the secret shared between the young Mona and her father, and establishes time and memory, and what we can do with our memories as the main themes of this novel.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says… ‘By the sea all life’s worries wash away.’

Like Leon, in Kit de Waal’s first novel, Mona is a delightful character, a loyal friend and popular with the few people she knows well; and throughout the novel the reader is rooting for her: we don’t want any more tragedy in a life already full of loss.

Revelations about the insensitive treatment of stillbirths in the 1970s are shocking, but also provide an opportunity for the act of kindness that sets Mona off on her quest to help other parents deal with the grief of losing a baby. As well as managing her business, she runs an unconventional counselling service where parents can work through their own grief. But, at 59 Mona herself still hasn’t come to terms with her own loss. Kit de Waal is a talented and very canny writer: she sets up a range of possible futures for the lovely but lonely Mona. Half-way through the novel I made a note of my predictions and sat back to see if I was right. Would Mona go to Paris or stay in England? Would she marry the carpenter or the gent? Most proved to be wrong. Like opening doors along a corridor the writer keeps raising possible futures then, just when you think it’s inevitable, she bangs them shut. And Mona keeps walking.

Kit de Waal plays on our deepest fears with an expert touch. In less expert hands The Trick to Time could easily have sunk to melodrama: she steers a fine line between sentimentality and genuine emotion but stays on the right side. The determining factor is the generosity of spirit and remarkable sense of humour that come through every chapter. This book often brought me to tears – both at the poignancy of Mona’s story and at the absurdity of some of the scenes. The chapter with the hairnet (which I won’t spoil for you) must be the darkest and funniest of the whole novel.

The Trick to Time is an exquisitely written book dealing with real human feelings. There are no stereotypical drunken abusive Irish fathers or dodgy priests; Mona is the voice of many ordinary, working class women who reach middle age but still have an important story that should be told. And listened to.

The Trick to Time is published on March 28th, 2018.