Gemma Pearson reviews A City Burning, Angela Graham‘s debut collection of short stories based on uncertain futures.
“If you think too much about it – about how puny you are in a power-filled universe – you’d never do anything.”
It is relatively easy, in retrospect, to recognise a moment when everything changed. Sometimes a decision is the catalyst for a new life path: moving away, dealing with a breakup, or making a career change. But when the world is changing around us and we feel powerless in the current, moments of personal transformation can pass by unnoticed.
Angela Graham’s debut collection of short stories, A City Burning, elegantly captures this affronting situation. Whoever or wherever they are – for these stories move fluidly between Wales, Ireland and Italy – Graham’s characters repeatedly find themselves at the precipice of enormous personal or domestic change. In ‘Safety First’, for example, a day at the beach leads to an uncomfortable meditation on the insignificance of the individual. Similarly, in ‘Mercy’, four sons navigate their complex feelings surrounding the death of their father. In other stories, however, singular moments of introspection are framed by wider societal unrest. ‘The Road’, an intriguing story set against the Orange Order’s Twelfth of July celebration, examines the curious feeling of personal stasis amidst public tragedy: “I feel as though I am deep inside a passage tomb, in a chamber that waits and waits […] for the moment when the time comes right and the sun steps to its vantage point”. The collection also touches on urban violence, WWII, and even the COVID-19 pandemic as each character adjusts, adapts, and accepts their own microcosmic “new normal”.
Aside from the nod to our current crisis, the most striking element of Graham’s collection is the clarity of voice. Though each of the twenty-six stories employs a decidedly different perspective – a mourning wife, a gay priest, a frustrated horologist, a struggling actress – Graham’s authorial command remains honest, insightful and impressive. The quasi-cinematic focus given to each story, which ranges from deep, intimate vignettes to more abstract, “zoomed out” streams of consciousness, gives the collection intriguing multiplicity and serves as a testament to Graham’s talent for interpersonal perception. The focus on linguistic exchange in A City Burning is also notable; English, Welsh, Ulster Scots, and Italian all converge to create a narrative that is both highly contextual and elegantly told.
A City Burning lays out an assortment of characters all bound by one searing similarity. Caught in crises, torn between ideologies, religions and moralities, and faced with the disarming prospect of transformation, Graham expertly captures the lives of ordinary people burdened by extraordinary circumstances. For many of us living through the second set of U.K. lockdowns, it feels as though we’ve barely caught a breath. For months now, we have been grasping for something solid, something steady, to quell the unsettling feeling that our lives will never be the same. Nevertheless, while we are all staying at home, perhaps feeling inert and limited, we are constantly evolving. Thus, while the titular city – perhaps a miniaturised metaphor for the world itself – is burning down, Graham’s collection reminds us that life, with all its beauty, does indeed go on.
A City Burning by Angela Graham is available now from Seren Books.