Emma Schofield enjoys Scar Tissue, a new collection of short stories from Clare Morgan which explores notions of love, life and community against the backdrop of an array of different places.
It’s been a long time since I read An Affair of the Heart, Clare Morgan’s 1996 debut short story collection, but the stories stayed with me for a long time afterwards. Over two decades after it was first published, what I remember is still the deftness of Morgan’s writing, her ability to paint a picture with her words and then draw the reader almost entirely into that vision. There was something vaguely hypnotic about it. Twenty-six years later and that same deftness of touch is there in Scar Tissue, Morgan’s first short story collection since Affair of the Heart.
Like all good short story collections, Scar Tissue has its own rhythm. There are five sections – Space, Home, Away, Nowhere and Somewhere – with the stories in each section closely aligned to that theme. We start out in Space in ‘Breathing on the Moon’, before returning to Wales and the Welsh Marches for the Home section. The stories are distinct from each other, each occupying its own space and voice within the collection, but there are threads which lace them together. Reflections about the influence of place on a sense of identity and community run throughout the stories, as does the importance of the past. In Morgan’s writing, even houses take on a new significance. The Away section of the collection finds us in Connecticut for ‘Heritage Road’, where the past is inescapable: “these old things. They make you think. Ancient times. Ancient houses”. As with scar tissue itself, there are divides and distortions, at times better concealed than others, but the wounds of the past are never entirely erased.
For the most part the collection flows easily, gliding between different countries and both male and female narrative voices. Yet there are a few unexpected moments. ‘Special’ features a second person narrator, an approach which works more convincingly in some parts of the story than others. Morgan works hard to make the form flow, invoking a sense of confusion and haziness in the recollections of a young girl forced to make decisions which will have consequences for her whole family. Nevertheless, the sudden switch to the second person narrative feels a little confronting amidst the wider collection. There is something quite abrupt about the shift in perspective, which cut sharply through the ease which characterises the rest of the stories. It may be intentional, but I was relieved when the rhythm that had driven the first half of the collection resumed in ‘The Waiting Room’.
That movement between places and changing landscapes is central to each of the stories. Whether it is in the almost gothic depiction of a medieval farmhouse in the Welsh hillside, or the cool of a forest in Scandinavia, or even the oppressive heat of Mumbai, Morgan’s evocation of place is compelling. Yet it is in the complexity of the characters that her writing is at its strongest. Stories such as ‘Miguel’s Dream’ perfectly capture the pain and confusion of lives which have become entangled through an affair, while simultaneously refusing to shy away from notions of female bodily autonomy in pregnancy and abortion. Morgan’s sophistication as a writer allows her to delve into these topics, without disrupting the arc of the stories she weaves.
The final section of Scar Tissue takes us to Somewhere, a place which in the case of ‘Furious Interiors’ happens to be the home of Morgan herself. Here, at last, the pace slows a little and everything seems to fall more firmly into focus. The magic here is in the silences, in the gaps between what is said and what is not said. ‘Ghosts live in books, in the lines on the page, in the spaces, the margins the spine, the stitching’, writes Morgan, before moving on to reflect on the house itself and the generations who occupied the space before her. It is a fitting end point to a collection which draws attention to the poignancy of place, the pain of loss and the reassuring continuity of time. Scar Tissue is a collection that’s been a long time coming but, on the whole, it feels like it was worth the wait.