This début collection of short stories from Wales-based writer, Lane Ashfeldt, almost entirely takes place against a backdrop of foam and brine, of shipwrecks and storms and calmer, more meditative waters. The stories veer between full blown family tragedies and short, sharp observations of daily life which suggest the influence of Hemingway and Carver. These seascape settings switch from England to New Zealand and from Greece to Haiti but the collection’s spiritual home is the West Cork coastline, specifically the seaside village of Baltimore. It is around here that the collection’s impressive opening stories centre – two haunting pieces which highlight how tragedy can appear out of nowhere in our everyday lives like sudden, engulfing waves.
Opening piece, ‘The Boat Trip’, initially appears to be a fairly typical coming-of- age-story set in small town Ireland, concerning sixteen-year-old Elizabeth who dreams of moving to Cork City with her best friend. This friend, however, has fallen in love with a local boy and more or less forgotten about Cork City. They arrange to go on a boat trip being organised by the friend’s uncle, an excursion which, to Elizabeth’s dismay, her mother gives younger sister Nola permission to take part in. It is here that it starts to become clear that this story is, in a sense, more Nola’s one than Elizabeth’s, and when the subsequent storm and tragedy occurs it is through her eyes that we see it. Ashfeldt handles this shift well; her entrance into the mind of each character is both convincing and moving.
Nola also appears in the World War II-set story which gives the collection it’s title; a piece which switches between her husband’s small boat becoming caught out in the Irish sea by Nazi bombers (he has riskily sailed to England to collect some China clay for the Arklow pottery company) and a day at the beach when their daughter gets stranded by the high tide. Nola, who has not been in the water since the tragedy described in ‘The Boat Trip’, strides into the sea and rescues her daughter. Meanwhile the impact of the Nazi bomb on her husband’s ship is lessened by the huge quantity of clay he has on board and he is able to make it ashore. A kind of hard earned closure has been achieved. This time the sea has been beaten.
Ashfeldt clearly knows this area of Ireland very well because she has a very good ear for local speech patterns, as well an eye for detail which makes these ocean-defined locations come vividly to life. It is interesting, then, that perhaps the most successful piece in the collection is not set in Ireland at all but on Canvey Island. ‘Dancing on Canvey’, which is based on a true story and went on to win the Fish Short Histories Prize, shares a similar atmosphere, theme and structure to ‘The Boat Trip’, but is in some ways a stronger, more multi-dimensional piece.
The story’s scholarly narrator develops a crush on a boy at school who has no interest in learning because he intends to be a fisherman like his father. The boy, who is clearly kind and intelligent, asks the narrator if she will be going to the dance to celebrate the opening of the new town hall. Despite much pleading on her part, she is not allowed to go because her mother does not entirely trust the half-deaf elderly lady who babysits her baby boy. As with ‘The Boat Trip’ we appear to be in the territory of the small town, coming of age story; with the authors sparse, carefully chosen words and attention to detail recalling the work of Mary Lavin or William Trevor. But just as there is always a twist of the knife, or a carpet pulled up from underneath the feet with Trevor, so it is often the case with Ashfeldt. Once the elderly baby sitter is asleep the narrator runs out to the dance, even though a sea storm is beginning to rise. Owing to the weather, the dance has ended early and she returns home to realise that the house is being flooded. She tries to take her baby brother up to the loft with her but the elderly babysitter won’t let her, saying that she is making a fuss out of nothing. The ensuing tragedy is re-enforced by the action moving to the following day and the narrator waiting inside a school hall with all the other children whose parents have been made missing by the storm. The kind but unscholarly boy from school had played a part in her rescue and is clearly besotted with her but his family will leave Canvey now, as they had only been renting their house and it has been wrecked in the storm. It is perhaps this extra strand to the story which makes this particular piece feel that much more fully-realised because we begin to think about the boy and his own sadness before our attention is directed back to the narrator.
As a collection SaltWater is a deeply evocative, deeply impressive début. There are times when some of the shorter pieces can maybe seem a little too slight, or when some of the more dramatic pieces, perhaps, a little overwrought but overall this is a book which serves notice of a fresh and original talent. One that we will surely be seeing more of in the years to come.