Parthian Books, 2014, 250pp
There used to be an advert for Cadbury’s Creme Eggs with the strapline ‘How do you eat yours?’ A similar question applies to collections of short stories – do you start at the beginning and read through in order, or dip in? I decided to read this collection of new Welsh fiction sequentially, and the first story, ‘Onwards’ by Cardiff-born Dan Tyte, is a great opener: taking you on a perambulation through a city, laying out its geography securely, offering the prospect of many adventures. At the other end of the collection, Susmita Bhattacharya’s epistolary story – told from the point of view of an incomer for whom Cardiff becomes a very confusing place – is a beautiful conclusion to the range of experiences portrayed in this book. In between lies much to enjoy, albeit without forming a coherent whole or stretching the boundaries of the short story form.
There are well-known names in the collection, notably Rachel Trezise, whose story ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’ is taken from her collection Cosmic Latte published by Parthian in 2013. The main character in this story is a pistol-shaped cigarette lighter ‘big as tomorrow’. The story is firmly rooted in Wales, though the confusions of language are, interestingly, all about English.
Other voices are new. Several of the writers featured, including Dan Tyte and Susmita Bhattacharya, have debut novels forthcoming from Parthian. Another is Carly Holmes, whose story ‘Friday’ is a poignant study of grief, its ordinariness alongside its strangenesses. The narrator’s sense of the hills moving is a wonderful metaphor for the shifting sands of loss. There is a very different portrayal of the experience of grief in Georgia Carys Williams’ story ‘The Bereaved’, told from a viewpoint you do not expect.
The dust-cover tells us that these stories ‘examine cultural and combative conflict’, but that is a curious summing-up, not how I perceived them. Yes, any story needs some kind of tension to make it come alive, but not necessarily a conflict. For example, in Tyler Keevil’s ‘Mangleface’, a shop assistant’s fantasy about a woman customer is on the verge of becoming reality, but his hesitation costs him the opportunity and he watches her walk away, ‘feeling like I’d crushed a butterfly in my fist’. I would have appreciated the editor sharing with her readers something of her thought-process in collecting these particular stories. There does not have to be a narrative thread through such a collection, indeed it would be remarkable if this were possible with a disparate group of authors, but I would like to know if they were chosen for more than being what is described as ‘New Welsh Fiction’. Parthian’s blurb tells us that ‘this collection aims to showcase an exciting array of our alumni, friends and emerging talents’. Fair enough from a publisher’s point of view, and it is true that many of these writers have won prizes for their writing. I am sure that the editors at Parthian hope that readers of Rarebit will want to buy more of their books, but I wish I had felt more excited by this as a collection of short fiction.
It is nevertheless to be applauded that new short stories are being published and there is one particular short in Rarebit which I consider a model of the form, Lane Ashfeldt’s ‘Sound Waves’. A gentle tale of encounters at a music festival turns into something quite different – I will not give away what happens, but it is achieved with skill and economy. It also has a title which conveys much more than is at first apparent and really adds to the story, something which short story writers would do well to think about.
I do wonder about the inclusion of translations in this collection – part of the publisher’s canon, yes, but in what way is a translation from the Slovak by an Irish writer who has lived in Bratislava since 1996 a contribution to New Welsh Fiction?
This limited edition has been produced with care; it is well-designed and the woodcuts created for the cover, and to preface each story, by Cardiff artist John Abell contribute to making it a beautiful-looking book, with an attractive, clever title. As for the contents, it is a book to dip into, to see if there is something to your taste, and if you approach it in that way you will not be disappointed.