Despite some glib comments about short fiction being better-suited for our busy modern world of grabbing a bite to read on the morning commute, I actually think a lot of short fiction suffers if you don’t have the time to pick over it properly. Good short fiction often needs to be re-read, checked again for that one turn of phrase that caught at you. It’s the hors d’oeurves of the literary buffet, rather than the good old meat and potatos of novel-length fiction. Elizabeth Baines’ collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, is definitely one that requires savouring.
This is, for a start, a much more unified collection than I had expected from hearsay. All the stories here are about the disenfranchised, people whose stories aren’t told as often. It’s a collection of women (especially mothers), the homeless, the people you might pass by on a grey city street without noticing. And it’s very good at it. ‘Daniel Smith Disappears Off the Face of the Earth’, for instance, is a description of a mugging that manages to be both beautiful and harrowing, one of those perfect pieces of short fiction that sticks with you and makes you see the next puddle you walk past differently. Others, like ‘Holding Hands’, are more traditionally structured, and still very solid pieces of emotional observation that still show off Baines’ skill. There’s this great sense of delight in words, in expression, that lends a freshness to even the most traditional piece here. It feels rather like her characters are really glad to just be able to tell you about their lives, even when those lives are not necessarily much fun. The overall effect is like walking down the street and seeing people in their living room who have forgotten that people outside can see in, except this time you can hear them, too.
(It should also be noted that yes, it can sometimes be as creepy to read as that implies. Just in a good way.)
This is not to say it’s perfect. Like all short-fiction collections, there are going to be some that work better than others. This is exacerbated, perhaps, by the fact that Baines is clearly trying to stretch her experimental wings a little. Not all experiments work: ‘The Way to Behave’, for me, just didn’t get over its initial ‘woman blaming other woman for her husband cheating’ hurdle, despite what was, in retrospect, a pretty valiant attempt. One about a teenager going off the rails because his parents were too indulgent to him also just didn’t manage to reach its goal with me, mostly because I found the stories more effective when there was less of an obvious moral comment. Other readers might love that, but find they have a great personal aversion to the description of sex in ‘Into the Night’.
One thing, though, for me made it worth reading anyway. I initially found the very first story, ‘Condensed Metaphysics’ a little too pat, somehow flat. But then I realised that I couldn’t quite articulate why, and it was turning around in my head and I found myself sitting on a bus thinking about it and still trying to work out what my opinion was, what exactly about it I was responding to and what it was trying to say. And I think a lot of the stories in this collection will be like that, stories that you’ll love, or hate, or find yourself randomly remembering at odd moments. Which, to me, is the mark of a pretty good short story collection.
Any Cop?: Absolutely – there are some gems here, and if you like short fiction it’s definitely worth trying to find which those are for you.
– Katie Rathfelder