John Lavin takes a look at Rachel Trezise’s collection of short stories, Cosmic Latte, including the stories ‘Czech Marionettes’ and ‘The Milstein Kosher Liquorice Company.’
Rachel Trezise’s second short story collection, Cosmic Latte, the follow up to the Dylan Thomas Prize-winning Fresh Apples, has been six years in the making. Speaking to Wales Online late last year, Trezise spoke about how it has been a ‘pet project’ and ‘a labour of love’ that she had been working on at the same time as she was writing the memoir, Dial M for Merthyr and the novel, Sixteen Shades of Crazy.
This long gestation period seems to have worked in the book’s favour because, if anything, the stories collected in Cosmic Latte – which takes its name both from the colour that scientists recently ascribed to the universe, as well as from an imaginary new colour of nail varnish – are superior to those in Fresh Apples. Each story in Cosmic Latte is a multi-layered, deeply imagined piece of fiction, very often with the breadth and scope of a novel. Trezise’s observation that, while quicker to write, short stories require just ‘as much concentration as when you’re writing a novel’ is borne out by the fact that each of the pieces here are, like Brian Wilson’s ‘teenage symphonies to God’, the short fiction equivalent of a ‘pocket symphony’. In other words, they have the range and emotional depth of a larger work, while at the same time being the paper-and-ink equivalent of a three-minute pop song.
I allude to music because, of course, music is such an important benchmark in Rachel Trezise’s work and because the opening story of Cosmic Latte, ‘Czech Marionettes’, seems to share some of the same atmosphere as ‘Yes’ by one of her musical heroes, the Manic Street Preachers. Richey Edward’s lyrics to that song were in part inspired by the prostitution he had witnessed (and somewhat troublingly, paid for) on a visit to Thailand; they spoke at length about how ‘in these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything’ before going on to famously declare that:
It’s a boy/ You wanna girl so tear off his cock/ Tie his hair in bunches/ Fuck him/ Call him Rita if you want
There is plenty of ‘plague’ and ‘pity’ in ‘Czech Marionettes’ (which even sounds a little bit like a great lost Edwards’ song title), as Trezise takes us into the mind of Steffan, a grieving widower on a stag weekend in Prague. Having to get away from his friends, whose talk of wives and girlfriends reminds him too much of his loss, he accidentally meets a prostitute. Having let her choose her fee from his wallet – a sign, perhaps, of his naivety in comparison to his friends – he follows her to a dry-rot-ridden room, where she matter-of-factly brings him to orgasm.
The comparison between marionettes and sex reduced to a financial exchange is not a new one, but it is one that Rachel Trezise handles with particular feeling and delicacy. She not only compares the handmade wooden toys being sold in the market (which Steffan can’t get to work properly) with the ‘raw, pork like’ Czech prostitute, but also with Steffan’s fellow stags, the self-proclaimed ‘Taffia on Tour’, who giggle like schoolchildren while they watch pornography, cheering on the cum-shots. At the end of the story, one of the stags buys a marionette for his son and Rachel Trezise expertly captures the confusion in his mind between his fatherly love for his son and his need to appear macho in front of his male friends. The confusion between his denigrating behaviour towards women (while he is away with the stags) with his desire to be a good husband and father. Something that Steffan, who also lost a baby when his wife died, can no longer be.
This refusal to typecast even minor characters is a particular calling card of a short story collection which is primarily concerned with immigration and displacement. Rachel Trezise takes us variously into the world of a Vietnamese family coming to terms with life in America; of an American Jewish boy losing his virginity on a visit to Israel; of a young Valley’s manicurist whose psychopathic boss makes her staff holiday abroad with her (the mordantly humorous, ‘Hard as Nails’); while in, perhaps the most virtuoso piece here, she takes us into the world of a young Jewish couple who, following a series of misadventures, end up living and working in a mining village in the Valleys.
In ‘The Milstein Kosher Liquorice Company’, Trezise takes in Jewish history, Welsh history and feminist history. Within its twenty pages it contains as much imagination and insight as you may more readily expect to find in a full length work of literary fiction; a quality which puts me in mind of our foremost living short story writer, Alice Munro; a writer who is known for making historical fiction seem as though it couldn’t and shouldn’t be anything else but relevant and contemporary.
A young Jewish couple think they are going to America to escape the anti-Semitism of turn-of-the-century London, but find they have been tricked by the captain of their ship and taken to Cardiff Bay instead. The first thing they see is the Pierhead Building. ‘There’s Ellis Island’, the well-meaning but dim-witted Abe shouts joyously. His wife, Sasha, isn’t so sure:
The building was smaller than she’d imagined, a gothic terracotta structure, gingerbread turrets on its nearside … She’d only counted three full days. Something was wrong. They couldn’t be in America yet.
This kind of warm ironic humour is another hallmark of a book which, while frequently delving into tragedy, sadness and even infanticide (the aforementioned ‘Hard as Nails’) never forgets that laughter is also a fundamental aspect of the human condition.
Hardly able to speak any English, Trezise’s young Jewish couple find a room to board in, although Sasha’s worst fears are soon confirmed. First when the landlady grudgingly accepts the American dollars they have already changed their currency into and secondly when she tells them – in response to Abe’s query about the location of the Brooklyn Bridge – that ‘You’re in Wales, my love’. With hardly a penny to their name, they take the train up into the Valleys, hoping to meet Jewish miners. After a while they are thrown off the train because of only having American currency and Sasha’s waters promptly break on the station platform.
It is here, when they are taken in by Lilly, a kindly Welsh woman who persuades her husband to find Abe a job in the mines, that the story really moves into a higher league altogether. Trezise moves between Welsh and Jewish customs, humour and mind-sets with a seemingly effortless ease, giving us convincing glimpses both of what it was like to be a turn-of-the-century Valleys miner and a turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the story is the voices of the two central female characters, Sasha and Lilly; both of them strong, fiercely intelligent women, living in a time when their opinions were considered less important than men’s (although it would be fair to say that no one holds that opinion in Lilly’s household). Sasha, in particular, feels the strain of being a Jewish woman as, in one of the stories most memorable sections, she recalls her Bar Mitzvah:
In Orthodox Jewish households girls were not expected to celebrate their coming of age in the way that boys were. Sasha had watched four of her older brothers read Torah aloud at shul and accept gifts of books and money, all the while knowing that her twelfth birthday would come and go unnoticed. She couldn’t raise her voice … what else was a Jewish girl, but a receptacle for reproduction?
But, at the end of her twelfth birthday, Sasha’s mother ‘sneak[s]into her bedroom’ and gives her ‘a gold macramé Star of David’:
‘You are a woman now,’ she’d whispered … ‘You are capable of meaningful and powerful thing …’ The exchange so hushed and hurried, as if it hadn’t happened at all.
This scene is so remarkable because of the secrecy which Sasha’s mother has to employ simply in order to give her daughter a gift on what is an important personal event. It is as though the girl and her mother are a persecuted race or criminals on the run rather than valued members of their family.
Whilst Trezise expertly enters the minds of both Sasha and Lilly in ‘The Milstein Kosher Liquorice Company’, one of the other striking features of Cosmic Latte is Trezise’s ability to write from a man’s perspective. If a man can write well from a woman’s point of view then the supposedly remarkable nature of this achievement is commented upon to such an extent that it has really become quite a cliché to do so. For a woman to write well from a man’s point of view seems to simply go unmentioned. This is, perhaps, because – in a quite typical case of literary sexism – critics feel that men are by their very nature easier to understand and so easier to write about than women. This kind of blatant nonsense is particularly undermined by Trezise’s fiction. Very many of the stories here are written from a man’s point of view and they are all depicted with the same degree of sensitivity, insight and deep imagining that Trezise reserves for her female characters. A talented writer should be able to write well from the point of view of either sex – the whole point of literature being after all, imagination and transgression. This is something which Trezise achieves in each of the stories in this truly exceptional collection, marking her out as a writer of the very highest rank.
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John Lavin is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.