Adam Jones reviews New Welsh Short Stories, published by Seren Short Stories and edited by Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas.
The publication of a new anthology of contemporary Welsh short stories is always an opportunity to reflect on the current climate of literature emanating from the country, a barometer of Welsh writing. In their introduction to Seren’s New Welsh Short Stories, editors Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas state their aim with modesty, but the collection could also be seen as a rounding up of some of the best writers associated with Wales, a real shop window for where we as a literary nation currently stand. Francesca Rhydderch and Penny Thomas opted to ‘choose authors and writing whose focus on form and style is both exemplary and satisfying’ and in doing so have compiled a series of stories of great depth and emotional pull. You cannot help but be impressed by story after story of expertly structured fictions leading to often unexpected, well-structured denouements.
The pacing of this anthology is handled well by the editors; take for instance the decision to follow Joe Dunthorne’s curious, slightly detached ‘Rising-Falling’ with a domesticated take on magical realism in ‘Crocodile Hearts’ by Kate Hamer. At a cursory glance, there seems to be little to connect the pieces (and nor should there be, these stories having been written in isolation), but an eccentric parable about trans-global online dating and a story concerning a mother’s growing paranoia over the crocodiles in the neighbouring yard yield surprising similarities when placed side by side. Without putting too fine a psycho-analytical point on it, each deals in falsehoods: the Professor in Dunthorne’s piece, a latter-day Enderby, plods through life in blissful ignorance, bullishly refusing to see the wool being pulled over his eyes. Hamer’s matriarch on the other hand sees the crocodiles – with all the references to false tears and faux leather in tow – as a synecdoche of every danger a mother faces when protecting her children from the outside world.
And while there are traces of the supernatural peppered throughout the anthology, it is by no means the pervading style or mood of the book. The horrors of everyday life are taken into account and detailed unflinchingly. There comes a point midway through Jo Mazelis’ ‘Levitation’, 1969, where our unnamed narrator, a young girl, is accosted by the school bully who lands her fist atop the head of our protagonist to create the sensation of an egg cracking, its contents trickling down her hair. Hurt and confused, she resolves to show no emotion in order to save face in front of this spiteful person. This scene, a beautifully realised sketch of the everyday rites and humiliations each of us has been through at some point in our lives, reoccurs under many different guises and through the prism of a variety of viewpoints throughout this anthology. It is also interesting to note that a significant number of these stories are told from the viewpoint of characters whom we initially view as gullible, soon-to-be victims, but often contain their own hidden venom, leaving one suitably perplexed, bemused and above all desperate to read on.
The theme of growing up and the resultant fears, doubts and consternations are returned to time and time again. In Carys Davies’ ‘Mr. Philips’, for instance, a grieving son finds solace in the unlikeliest of places while cataloguing his departed father’s possessions; and in Deborah Kay Davies’ ‘No One Is Looking At You’, a wrenching tale of a mother’s inability to deal with her own issues is dressed up as a fairly conventional bildungsroman. As with any anthology the anxiety of influence occasionally rears its head; despite introducing a fascinating conceit, Cynan Jones’ eldritch horror is difficult to read without the respective specters of Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman looming throughout. Other more heralded stylists also reveal themselves in a number of entries: Lorrie Moore’s wit and verve are evident in ‘A Romance’, Sarah Cole’s hilarious deconstruction of the dating game; just as the Daedalusian formative experiences detailed in Thomas Morris’ ’17’ and the absurdist non sequiturs bandied back and forth in Robert Minnhinick’s ‘Balm-of-Gilead’ both owe clear debts to the great Irish Modernists. Taken as a whole, these touchstones are used more as launch pads than pastiche and that intertextuality serves the reader well.
It is extremely exciting to see Welsh writing willing and able to push stylistic boundaries in the way many of these do; Zillah Bethell’s wrenching ode to Albert Einstein’s forgotten daughter is told from the perspective of the dead child adrift in some unnamable void and takes the form of an initially impenetrable monologue before a figurative break in the clouds provides a moment of true empathic clarity. Elsewhere, Mary-Ann Constantine’s ‘John Henry’ provides a fantastically eccentric profile of the ubiquitous, profusely-sweating, always in a hurry businessman. The subtle tonal shifts are cleverly done: beginning with playful parallels between the non-stop rat race and the slavers mentioned in the song ‘John Henry’, the comparisons drawn out comically at first before gradually imbuing the reader with a deep pathos for this nameless suit due to his failure to recognize his lack of control over his own destiny.
What Seren has published here is a fine collection of worldly stories, both open in outlook and generous of spirit. These writers, aware of their literary heritage without being burdened by its weight, form a cohesive argument for the thriving Welsh literary tradition and the editors have done us a great service by uniting them between the covers.
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Wales Arts Review is incredibly pleased to present a new series that explores a variety of ‘vignette‘ short stories which offer a thoughtful glimpse minds of each of the authors.