Laura Wainwright reviews Shattercone, a new collection of short stories by Tristan Hughes.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of ‘the blue of distance’. ‘The colour of that distance’, she explains, ‘is the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not. And the colour of where you can never go. Tristan Hughes’s Shattercone, a collection of nine fascinatingly interwoven short stories, set in Canada, the Great Lakes and in Wales, is a book of such distances – spatial and geographical, but also temporal, emotional, relational and existential. As the narrator of ‘Up Here’, who has left his old life behind and travelled to the isolated forests and lakes of Canada to live with his girlfriend, recalls: ‘what a wonder it was, this magic trick of distance; that could conjure you so effortlessly into another existence’.
Like spectators in a conjurer’s show, however, the characters in these stories are often searching for some realm of understanding or level of comprehension that remains perpetually out of their reach. In ‘Up Here’, there is a sense of the instability and unknowability – of the proximity and yet remoteness – both of another person and of a place:
‘It’s hard trying to live between different stories, ones that will not fit together. Sometimes at night my girlfriend locked herself in the bathroom to cry. Sometimes she made love with me so roughly, and then so sadly, it wasn’t like love at all. And outside the window the sap would drip down the bark of the black trees and the loons would keen and the mosquitos would fly berserk through the dark like miniature warlocks on their broomsticks.’
Similarly, in ‘Shatter Cones and Caribou’, lovers Magda and Joshua discover, during their ‘adventure’ in the Great Lakes, ‘all the lonely thoughts that lurk[. . .] in far-away places’. The shatter cone that they have been looking for (a cone of rock ‘which didn’t look like a cone’ at all) looms large – an eerie relic of a lone meteorite hurtling through space and smashing into Earth.
In the arresting and memorable ‘Blackthorn Winter’, Daniel returns to a Welsh farm for a holiday with his wife and stepdaughter and finds it to be a long way from the place he remembers from his childhood. Out walking, he encounters a cow from the farm lying on the beach, unable or unwilling to move – ‘carrion’ for a waiting raven and ‘the inexorable creep’ of the tide. He tries desperately to rouse it or somehow communicate the danger – to close the distance between human and animal, present and past. ‘Perhaps this being down is some terrible form of forgetting’, he tells himself; ‘If he could just remind it. If he could help it remember’.
While Shattercone is a collection about distances, however, it is equally a book about connections; between human hopes and losses, choices and fears – ‘solitude and desire’ (in Solnit’s words). Themes, characters and events are recurring and interlacing. Indeed, the experience of reading these precisely and beautifully written stories is reminiscent of that of David in ‘ENE’: ‘this forest is not trackless’ [. . .] And yet it turns him around and around. Each way he goes, he seems to come to where he has already been’.
Throughout, Hughes is attentive to coexisting, interdependent natural and human worlds and to their mutual vulnerability – ‘the unending need and burden of protection’, he writes in ‘Blackthorn Winter’ when Daniel struggles to save the cow from the sea. Similarly, in ‘Up Here’, we learn that, contrary to popular tourist narratives:
The seasons sometimes didn’t arrive when they were supposed to. And animals tricked by them fared badly. When the snow came late the snowshoe hares, white nuggets in the dun landscape, were taken easily by hawks and foxes. When the spring came too early the moose, still wearing their winter coats, would overheat and die of stress. Ice stayed too late and thawed too early. Rivers dried up and overflowed. Fish couldn’t lay their eggs. Frogs perished in multitudes.
Hughes seems to warn here of a precarious ‘in-between place, where one thing [has] not quite become another’ – a place wholly different and more urgent than the escapist ideal his emigrant narrator originally seeks. In these absorbing stories of fragility and affinity, ‘Somebody else’s long distance’ is always closer than we think.
Shattercone will be released in October 2020 and is available for pre-order from Parthian Books.