Parthian Books, £8.99
Within a square of light hangs a summer dress, sheer to the point of being see-through; missing its owner, missing substance. This is the suitably poignant image which graces the front cover of The Missing Woman and Other Stories, the first short story collection by lecturer and Bridport Prize-shortlisted author Carole Burns, the unifying motif of which is things that are missing: from the titular missing woman, a girl missing the point to living, a woman missing a sense of certainty, to those who can’t even quantify what it is they’re missing.
One of the definitions of a good short story is that it should be a snapshot and a universe at the same time, and this is exactly what Carole Burns has managed to do. Each story, whether it’s a one-shot vignette or longer, presents a self-contained story that nevertheless also manage to hint at a wider world and a potentially bigger story that the one we are given. Take the first story in the collection, ‘The Missing Woman’, as an example. An encounter with a search for a missing woman whilst out on a family bike ride leads to a wife’s epiphany about herself and her marriage, and the realisation that something fundamental may even be missing from herself. The build-up is gradual, beginning in a mechanic’s shop we meet Jill, Mike and their two young daughters, and as we watch them go from a check-up and maintenance on Jill’s bike to embarking on the outing itself, we learn that there is conflict just below the surface of their otherwise genial exterior. Jill is a free spirit, caring and impulsive, who is having trouble reconciling the need to temper her impulses and desire for spontaneity with her responsibility towards her family. Mike, a prosecutor who’s often exposed to the worst in the world, is a man uncomfortable with chaos and unpredictability. On their way along the trail they encounter a search party for a missing woman. Jill’s natural instinct is to stop and help but Mike, experienced enough to know that it’s a largely pointless endeavour, stops her from doing so. Upon riding away, Jill is moved to tears, wanting to believe that she’s ‘crying over a woman she didn’t know’ but realising it is more than that:
She wondered if her regret over not stopping would make her stop next time. And she knew it wouldn’t, and her regret turned inward, as she wondered what was missing, why she wouldn’t be able to stop, why the kids and Michael and the fear of not being able to keep her family whole made her unable to follow her instinct to reach out.
Of course, it’s not just world building and plot construction which make a good story. Just as important is the writing itself, and Burns has technical proficiency in spades. The language she uses is simple, but, like a mosaic artist, each little coloured stone is arranged precisely so to make new and interesting combinations. There are so many beautiful lines throughout this collection that the rest of this review could just be a list of them: a beauty mark is ‘milky black in the dawn.’ A bride-to-be stands ‘pliant in ivory lace underwear and stockings.’ And tulips ‘reveal the secret of their color. Their brilliance is peeping out beneath the enclosing bud, which for so long was dark and protective, sheltering their vibrancy and life.’
Her writing is not just beautiful however, and other literary techniques are used to great effect. For instance, the dual narrative, alternating between the point of view of both Jill and Mike, allows us not only to see Jill’s frustration at Mike’s overprotectiveness but also Mike’s regret that his dislike of disorder means he sometimes finds it difficult to be around his young and often chaotic family, and that his protectiveness is not only a way of showing his love, but, by creating the illusion of order and control, a way of creating a world he is comfortable with. This preserves the dichotomy between the two that propels the narrative forward, but also paints them as fully rounded characters.
Juxtaposition and pathetic fallacy are also used effectively, creating tension: ‘strong vines from the canal had already tentacled onto the dirt towpath.’ And illustrating character: ‘Jill knew from his fluid movements that he’d be a good dancer. His touch was light yet attentive, his lead just that – a lead, not a push, so light you felt you were leading, the same way he let the bike lead while guiding it just the same.’ Here the juxtaposition in the imagery not only illustrates the mechanic’s character but also provides him as a contrast to Michael.
There are, however, two dangers when it comes to short story collections, the first being that they are almost inevitably a mixed bag, with some pieces being stronger than others. Burns doesn’t quite fall into this trap. The quality remains fairly constant throughout, although some of the shorter pieces are a little too swift to leave any lasting impact.
The second danger, particularly in a collection with a unifying motif or theme, is that the stories can end up feeling as though they are too much cut from the same cloth. However, whilst all of Burns’ stories leave you with a lingering sense of wistfulness, there is enough variation in situation, character and narrative structure to ensure that this isn’t the case.
The Missing Woman and Other Stories is a surprising and complex debut collection and it will certainly be interesting to see what Carole Burns does next.