One of my favourite books of 2017, these extraordinarily vivid and visceral short stories come from the American writer, Carmen Maria Machado who lives with her wife in Philadelphia. She’s been widely published in magasines and anthologies, but this debut collection demonstrates her dizzying ability in both storytelling and language. It’s not surprising it was shortlisted for the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FICTION PRIZE 2017.
These stories have a strong vein of dark humour, but it’s difficult to categorise Machado’s style as each story if so completely different from the previous one. Sometimes disturbing, gothic or erotic (like a contemporary Angela Carter), what links them all is the relationship between women and their bodies; how women are treated by men and by love between women. In one story a writers’ retreat goes horribly wrong; in another women’s relationship with clothes is taken to the extreme and women become part of the clothes. In another the youngest sister in a family finally opts for gastric band surgery and is haunted by the ghost of her former self, gurgling underneath the floorboards.
If the stories can’t be categorised, the language certainly can: precise, fresh, inventive and utterly new, with original and startling images. In The Husband Stitch Machado dissects the role of women in folk tales and stories and tells us: Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle. The story, Difficult at parties has a killer first line: Afterwards, there is no kind of quiet like the one that is in my head. Paul brings me home from the hospital in his ancient Volvo. In The resident a sinister atmosphere is evoked in a description of the entrance to the hotel: the wood curled in organic tendrils from where the doors met, like an octopus emerging arms and suckers first from a hiding place. In Mothers a woman leans in to a mirror to put on mascara, the amoeba of her breath growing and shrinking. This technique of defamiliarisation works particularly well in creating the strange and threatening worlds of Machado’s fiction.
These stories may often be dark and even disturbing, but they are literary horror of the highest order, defying expectations of what short fiction ‘should’ be. Ultimately this collection is a joyous celebration of lesbian relationships and of the strength of women to overcome misogyny. By the end of this ground-breaking collection I’d challenge anyone to disagree with the assertion that: It is my right to reside in my own mind. Which should be a basic human right, certainly the right of any woman and of course, of any author. As the narrator of the first story says: This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them.
Carmen Maria Machado tweets at https://twitter.com/carmenmmachado
Helen Garner is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her first novel, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977, and established her as an original voice on the Australian literary scene. At 75, she is a hugely experienced writer; James Wood of the New Yorker calls her ‘A natural storyteller’. 25 January, 2018 sees the UK publication by Text of her collected short fiction: Stories.
There’s a timeless quality to Garner’s work which means it isn’t limited to Australian culture or society. She minutely dissects life as it is lived with a dizzying clarity of vision and deals with the smallest incidents and moments of unhappiness. She’s bracingly honest and psychologically acute; there is sometimes humour, but her stories are always challenging. She is working at the limit of the short story form.
Until I read this collection I’m embarrassed to say I was unfamiliar with Garner’s work; this fascinating collection has made me want to read more.
Dear friends, readers and bloggers!
Wishing you a very peaceful time wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Thank you for looking at my blog and for liking or commenting on my posts. It’s good to know you’re there. Looking forward to a great year of reading and writing in 2018
by Virginia Moffat
published by: Unbound, 2017
Three generations of women are linked by repeating patterns of love, loss and conflict in times of war – the 1991 Gulf War, the 2nd World War and the 1st World War. This well-researched and very well written historical novel takes place in and near Echo Hall where the mysteries of thwarted love and disappointing relationships echo down the generations. In a climate of suffocating English reserve, women are kept in their place and silenced, while men go to war or are imprisoned for their pacifist beliefs. There are echoes of Wuthering Heights: love turns to obsession and bitterness, and the atmosphere of the novel is one of dark brooding and revenge. There is even a character called Earnshaw.
When Phoebe Flint visits Echo Hall in 2014 she begins to uncover the story of her family, the Flints (aptly named) who owned a stone quarry. Virginia Moffat has structured the novel in a very satisfying way: from the present we work our way back in time through the generations of Flints, to see the origins of all the sadness, then we travel back to the present again so that the story is resolved. A very pleasing arc.
The voices of each character are effectively evoked by mirroring the speech patterns of the appropriate time (1990s, 1940s and Edwardian). And there is just enough historical accuracy to make the story completely believable, rather than striving for effect by including too much detail, which often happens in historical fiction.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book is overlong; as the layers of family loss repeat themselves and accumulate, rather than making the story more powerful, the tragic effect is dulled. The repetition also means characters from each generation tend to blur. Initially I saw this as a fault, but on reflection this demonstrates just how effective the echoes of the tragedy are.
Overall Echo Hall is a good, historical family saga with some memorable scenes: the sudden death of a spouse, the delivery of a baby without medical assistance and the shared pleasure of watching a meteor shower. It is a story to read at a leisurely pace, to enjoy the gradual accumulation of sadness and the discovery of how misunderstandings happen.
Aha! Finally made the leap from sofa + notebook to office chair + my pc. I even opened a new folder and wrote the date + working title (very pretentious so I’m not going to tell you what it is). Strange to think that all these notes and random thoughts might be a novel after all. At the moment I have two unconnected voices, one of which I prefer so I may go with that one. But it’s exciting to see that after only a week I’m on page 19. OK some of the dialogue is clunky but this is the First Draft and it can all be revised. Or binned.
Reading: Echo Hall by Virginia Moffat. Crowdfunded by Unbound. Three generations of women experience love, loss and conflict in times of war. So far it’s a very good, old-fashioned ghost story (I think) like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
Travelling: to Leeds again. For birthday celebrations tomorrow with my daughter.
Exercising: a good way to think, come up with ideas. Jogging, walking and swimming.
Coming in at only 140 pages, Megan Hunter’s fascinating experimental novel is more a prose-poem or novella, but with the intensity of a short story. The text is divided by *** and interspersed with quasi biblical quotations. Everything has been pared down to the minimum: sentences are often so short as to be almost cryptic and names are only initials.
In a near future London floods catastrophically:
An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children. Ours.
The unnamed narrator has just given birth (to Z) so she and her partner, R head for the hills with millions of others, like mass hitchhiking with no lifts. The horror of sudden disaster and the struggle to survive is brought home by the stark contrast between the universality of what happens to them and the particulars of baby Z’s developmental progress:
here he is in his serious reaching, his controlled opening and sucking and swallowing… Z is trying to roll over… like someone trying to turn over a car with his bare hands. Impossible.
Megan Hunter’s debut novel is a tour de force of concision and emotional intensity. Not a word is wasted:
Here are some of R’s words for what happened: tussle, squabble, slaughter.
A sudden death is described almost as briefly as a telegram:
Panic. Crush. G. Panicked. Crushed.
There is also room for dark humour. When the family is trying to reach safety there is the disconnect between their previous comfortable, on-line lives and the present:
He has not spent hours poring over comparative reviews of refugee camps.
Without giving too much away this short tale of disaster could be bleak, but ends with the triumph of hope over adversity, the human will to keep going and survive. I’m working on a similar theme in my new novel so now that I’ve read The end we start from I’m really going to have to up my game!
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel is an intriguing story about the complex psychological life of Ada, a young Nigerian woman. Her multiple personalities are envisaged as figures from Igbo mythology and Christianity, and there is constant conflict and emotional stress as these characters fight to gain control of Ada. A difficult subject dealt with in a fascinating and original way. But this is not an easy book to read on any level.
I found the magical realism off-putting and sometimes confusing and there is a tendency towards unnecessary repetition; but Akwaeke Emezi is a skilled and imaginative writer and I look forward to reading her next novel.
My rating * * *