Parthian Books, 170pp
Alix Nathan’s collection of short, historical stories are very short and very sharp. They feature a shifting cast of misfits, criminals and revolutionaries occupying the fringes of a society threatened externally and internally.
When I say short, I mean very short. None is more than ten pages long and most are far shorter. By interlinking the stories in different ways, Nathan packs a lot into those few pages: sometimes by telling the same events from a different perspective, sometimes by recounting a later episode in a character’s life, sometimes just by referring to an earlier story. They are also linked by time because they are all set in the 1790s, a time of revolution abroad and sedition at home.
It is that atmosphere of revolution and the possibility of revolt, or at least change, that is another unifying theme. Some characters carry pamphlets or copies of Paine’s Rights of Man in their pockets and long for the creation of a more equal society in America, this is always set against an edgy atmosphere that often spills over into rioting. Others align themselves with the establishment and set their faces against change. And there are those who do not care one way or another and only want to be left alone to make a living, find a missing son, or collect exotic objects.
They are hard and hardened too. Their real ideas and desires are often thwarted, however, by suppressing these urges get by they can. A young woman endures the attentions of an elderly husband in the hope of financial security only for his death to set in motion a chain of events which spoils her success even as it’s achieved.
Nathan manages to convey a lot of detail into such short stories by packing it into dense paragraphs:
I accompanied him to southern Europe, Ottoman and Attic lands, India; collecting vessels, ritual objects, tiny carvings stones, statues, shards; beautiful, strange. I learned how much straw, sacking, how many planks were required to box and transport what Edward bought. Dealt with removers, stowers, reliable carriers; learned about pack-horses and shipping routes. Evolved a method of communication in every language though I spoke none. My brain grew balloon-like with knowledge. I developed a love for decorative knife-handles.
That paragraph is typical of her style. You can see that she likes lists. In another story an arsonist lights ‘fires in alleys, empty yards, dry ditches. Spark, smoke, spouting flame…’
And they are not just lists of nouns, but verbs too:
For twelve years I have tended, nursed, accompanied, approved, averted my gaze, kept the tradesmen from the door.
While a hairdresser of increasingly radical opinions says of his work that,
I smeared scented pomatum, my fingers dipped in brickdust for the grip, combed, parted, pinned, scraped greasy foreheads…
Nathan also uses these lists to give a sense of intensity and occasionally chaos. They suit the intense and chaotic society she depicts, but I sometimes found them overpowering to read.
Then there are the sequences of sentences with a common subject. In the paragraph above three successive sentences begin ‘I learned… Developed… Evolved…’ Later the same character, Robert, returns to Brighton to try to reclaim his long-lost lover:
Maria sat in her mother’s chair, by the window’s perfect seascape, stout but recognizable. Looked round at me, her hands scuttering like mice among papers on her lap. Stared unblinking. Turned back to the sea.
At the same time as packing a huge accumulation of detail into short spaces, Nathan also leaves much unsaid. The first story featuring Maria and Robert ends with Maria hovering between twin futures of freedom from her needy mother or a life chained to her memory.
Another story ends with a sailor and the woman that he believes he can find contentment with, brought together in the same place at the same time and with the circumstances right for a happy ending but no clue as to whether or not that happens.
A young housemaid in one story is, when we next meet her, an older, disappointed woman, returning coffee cups which have accompanied her as prize possessions to the Turkish Embassy from which they were stolen. The cups were unmissed and they languish unwanted but as Nathan rewinds to a time soon after we first saw Betsey, we realize that they are tied to the finest moment of her life. What happened after that is entirely unstated but presumably involved employment at the embassy, theft, departure and disappointment.
There are no twists, nor epiphanies concluding these stories. More often they are sudden pauses, which are sometimes picked up in other stories, sometimes not. They are knotty and intricate little pieces that linger long after reading.