144pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
Here are stories that are out of this world yet always grounded in reality.
Carys Davies, who with this first collection has just won the 2015 International Frank O’Connor Award for Short Stories, picks many different settings and many different times. Her tales are as vivid as paintings or short films; the smallest details ensuring that the impact lasts, and the pathos deriving from her astonishing empathy. Most excitingly, they constantly subvert expectations.
‘The Quiet’, set in the Australian outback, tells the quietly devastating story of two antagonists who find that they have more than loneliness in common. No way does the reader expect the denouement, despite clues in the language of belittlement. ‘On Commercial Hill’, set in the Welsh Valleys, gives an enigmatic snapshot of a marriage, seen through the eyes of the one child who was not distracted at the time by the ticklish business of fitting the last of the candles ‘into its metal flower’. ‘Jubilee’ has a cuckolded alderman telling all to a willing Queen Victoria; while ‘The Travellers’ is the strange tale of two unhappy couples linked by their inability to resolve arguments (anyone who has experienced this will recognize the impulse to run away to Siberia!).
‘Myth’ and ‘Bonnet’ examine the intimate detail of Amazonian breast-removal and Victorian heartbreak respectively. ‘Precious’ and ‘Miracle at Hawk’s Bay’ look at the workings of superstition and envy. There is tragedy, as with the death-in-childbirth story ‘Creed’, set in the Cumbrian fells; and comedy, in ‘Sybil’, set in out-of-season Trouville, where a flying parasol brings an ageing woman’s pessimistic predictions to an abrupt end.
These stories ask questions, and they offer precision imagery. Again and again, the detail stops you in your tracks. A young woman making a fuss at a wedding provokes the throwing of a stone, which ‘sent her flying off her little box like a skittle, or a coconut’. Elsewhere, a drowned body is to the gathering women as heavy as ‘a hammock full of stones’.
Carys Davies seems to be able to be in two places at once – to be in the past as easily as in the here and now; to be inside her own head looking out, and in someone else’s entirely. She has been featuring on prize-lists and winning prizes steadily for some time: this collection shows you why.