Parthian Books, 250pp
Short story collections are, more often than not, where authors demonstrate their ability and flair to capture snippets of the senses, allowing the reader to wade in at their own pace and relate to the stories on a personal level. They clasp the reader subtly and delicately with descriptions and plots which allow the reader to mould the stories like clay.
Short stories give us the chance to see a writer in full-flow, to witness their skill in swathing their ideas and style into different – but ostentatiously – connected moments. It also gives the writer an opportunity to corroborate ideas, characters and plots into something that’s – frequently – less heavy but equally as dense as a novel. Take Tyler Keevil’s Burrard Inlet or Cold Sea Stories by Pawel Huelle, for examples.
All The Places We Lived is a collection which gives the reader just about enough and is so slick and soundly put-together that you find yourself breezing through the stories (seventeen, in all). So much so that you’ve got to take a step back, breathe, re-read and contextualise each piece, firmly separating yourself from the fiction on display here – such is the authenticity of the voices bustling and over-lapping each other.
Each story concerns modern-day qualms and life in the 21st century through characters that are bound together as strong but thin as cobweb. Intricately connected themes weave through each piece like Roberts is emptying loose change from his pockets into a self-service till at the supermarket.
‘Marmaris, Turkey’ tells the story of a twenty-something couple who are on holiday. Roberts writes the narrative in such a way that you can imagine yourself looking over the characters’ shoulders and watching what they get up to. A scene at the beginning of the piece, which details the couple racing each other at sea, is a particular strong point in the story and you can truly imagine yourself as the narrator, racing through the waves. Roberts aims to control us in this piece with descriptions of foreign holidays, and the people we meet whilst on a break in the sun:
‘A waiter steps out from a restaurant and tells us that his is the best restaurant in Marmaris. The waiter is tall and has straight, white teeth. The waiter tells me that I am a very handsome man and I will enjoy his restaurant.’
Nearly all of us who have been on holiday in a foreign country can relate to this waiter and the communication that ensues. The narrator and the waiter have an awkward conversation where the waiter is trying to convince the narrator to eat in his restaurant, but the narrator has no money left. Roberts manages to conjure up images of Marmaris which are very real – the sun, the waves, the cocktails – and almost convince you to book a flight out once you’re finished with the story.
‘Kill Your Twin, Then Kill Yourself’ is a poignant, affecting story which focuses on the death of the narrator’s brother. All other family members seem closed-off from the strong relationship the narrator (Philip) has with his dying brother (Tom) and Roberts tells us this through dialogue such as when the sister says: ‘Did you have any idea that how I am now, before I had to come back to this house, is the healthiest I’ve ever been?’ Philip is portrayed as the only family member who will truly be distressed by Tom’s death and this adds to the bleakness of the piece. The mentioning of routine family life, the memories of Tom, the R.I.P messages on Tom’s Facebook page all glue together to leave you feeling with a knot in your stomach and the metaphor at the end of the piece: ‘Philip deactivates Tom’s account, then his own.’ ties the constant references of technology throughout the collection into a pungent, distressing conclusion to a very moving and realistic short story.
‘All The Places We Lived’ is a piece which is scattered into three parts throughout the collection. The stories focus on a relationship between two characters – who change their names with each piece – and the ups and downs, the mundane and the elevated moments, and the lives they lead as a young couple in the modern world. Each piece allows us to peer into their lives – and also lets us look into the lives of many, real people such is the pragmatic essence Roberts manages to portray of reality in these fictional worlds. With each name change, comes a developing maturity and stability within the couple and, by the end of the final act, we almost are rooting for the couple (compared to when we first met them and they were barely likeable characters). ‘All The Places We Lived’ is definitely where Roberts could set out on a longer piece of work and it would be very intriguing to see what he would do with the characters in an extended version.
‘Explicit/Rare Communications’ is a tongue-in-cheek look at two characters named Kanye and Kim (presumably, of the West and Kardashian variety) where Kanye is writing messages to Kim in a monologue style where he is telling her all his worries and presumptions about him, her, their relationship, his views and people they know. ‘I am attracted to your face and your body (you are made out of butter for God’s sake)’ is a particular highlight, showing Roberts’ succinct ability to make us laugh but also relate to relationship problems behind closed doors. Kanye is using language which Kim – maybe before this breakdown in their relationship – would have welcomed and Kanye is attempting to gratify her. This piece blows apart the stigma the public have attached to the couple; Roberts has managed to end the collection on a note where we realise we’re all not that distant and tie into each other through some way or another. The repetitive use of ‘Kim is offline’, near the end of the story, with the final note of ‘Kim is typing’ signifies our modern day use and need of technology – clinching the un-nerving contemporary style of the collection as a whole.
This collection is so contemporary it’s almost a new breed in itself. If you’re not up-to-date with modern culture, technology and life where everything is at your fingertips but could be pulled out of reach in an instant, this may not be for you. But, if you’re living life to the full in the 21st century, you’ll relate to this minimalist piece of work, and may even find yourself thinking that your life isn’t as different as your neighbours’, your work-colleagues’, the person you pass on the street. We’re just not ready to admit it yet.