Frances Spurrier reviews Used to Be by Elizabeth Baines, a collection of short stories that play with the idea of ‘What if?’.
One of the characters in the book’s title story says: ‘I used to believe in plots but they’re too insistent and simple; there’s no such thing as a single setting or a stable scenario, they’re always an author’s lie.’ Also, ‘You say one thing and the story turns into something else.’ The narrator has here underlined the philosophy behind these stories, the “Reader, I married him” style of writing which seeks both to notice the artificiality of the storytelling process, at the same time as it assumes the reader will continue to suspend disbelief.
Elizabeth Baines’ creates her characters, her narrative arc, a voice and various tropes of fiction that also question the central tenet of fiction itself – what is it for? What is its role in the things we tell ourselves about the lives we live and indeed, about what we believe – sometimes without justification – of the lives of others? In the same way a poet might ask whether a poem is ever finished, these stories ask whether lives are ever – if not finished – at least comprehensible.
In ‘What Do You Do If?’ a character who believes that she is empathizing with, and helping someone who doesn’t speak the language, then finds she is falling for a scam:
‘What do you do then? When it hits you that you got her wrong, that you weren’t so good after all at getting inside her shoes. She was better at getting inside yours…’.
The reader summons up righteous indignation on the protagonists behalf, but then the viewpoint switches again, bounding our sympathies back and forth until we realize that the very definition of the word ‘scam’ can be questioned under the right circumstances. What price moral certainties?
In the story ‘Turbulent Stillness’ is the line. ‘The trouble was – I can tell you – she was prone to taking cues from Brontë heroines’. I wondered which heroine were dealing with here? There is a world of different temperament, resolve and dedication between a Jane Eyre, a Cathy and a Helen Graham.
But the lines ‘Of course, because of their passionate natures, they quarrelled. About nothing …’ solved the quandary. We are in Heathcliff territory. A reference to this great romantic fiction entitles the reader to suspect that all will not end well for our heroine, but then Elizabeth Baines explodes the myth by making reality – as it so often is – rather more prosaic than overwrought romantic imaginations would wish.
Elizabeth Baines has great fun with the omnipotent narrative voice to the extent that the protagonists don’t have names. They are ‘you’ or ‘she’. Only the minor characters are awarded names. These stories struck me as primarily interested in ideas of story, as much as in storytelling although maybe there is no difference between the two. To me it is a degree of transparency/opacity of plot and structure. In other words, whether the strings show.
In ‘Looking for the Castle’, a woman returns briefly to her hometown – a place where she experienced a difficult and probably abusive childhood – on a whim having seen the signs driving past. Yet because of huge changes that have taken place in the locality, she has difficulty in recognizing any of the places of her memories. Not even the road in which she lived.
Baines delights in shifting sand under the readers’ feet and what better way to do it than by dislocation of the geographical environment; by erasure of what we like to call ‘home’.
‘You’d never been back, but now the place scraped on your mind: a knot of tanneries and terraced houses in a curve above the watery spaces where the Mersey joins the Manchester Ship Canal.’
And later when the ‘remembered’ locations continue to be evasive, the protagonist starts to doubt. ‘Could it be that you invented the castle of your memory? Imagined, dreamt your own past?’
How much of our lives do we imagine? Dream? Is everything a fiction, an expedience? Ultimately these are questions that are posited by Baines’ writing. And while it may be easy enough to have existential anxieties, to ask what is real and what is not, to question the reliability of memory – it is not at all easy to ask big questions in this most difficult of writing forms, the short story, and using such lucid and poetic prose as the author here uses.
In a way of the sense of rootlessness, of a search for and a desire to belong, that underpins many great fictions – including of course, that of the Brontës -something about Baines’ characters makes them feel exiled in their own stories. Do we not all, the author seems to ask, feel exiled in our own stories?
But perhaps the author’s keenest and most unsettling insight is the role of technology in all this and I imagine this will be an area Baines will be exploring further in future work. For anyone interested in shifting sands and perceptions of reality, the computer age is manna from heaven. To end, a brief excerpt from the story entitled ‘Possibilities’:
‘You tap your keyboard, the screen lights up again, the wi-fi kicks back, you get back to the true reality: your network, people you can influence, people who can help you, your own beautiful system.’