Over half of the stories in The White Road & Other Stories by Tania Hershman have, as their jumping off point, odd snippets of information gleaned from New Scientist. Whether it’s the long road to the South Pole (stretching more than 1600 miles across inhospitable terrain), coronal mass ejections (billion-tonne balls of plasma spat out by the sun), radio frequency identification tags or the aches and pains some people get as a result of the weather, Tania Hershman isn’t afraid to stick a pin in a board and say, This – this thing right here – is what got me started on the story you’re about to read. Although the New Scientist obviously offers Hershman a rich seedbed of inspiration, her stories are far from geeky, eschewing the rote delineation of new facts and stats in favour of zesty, obtuse life.
Take the title story, which opens the collection, as a case in point: a woman and a dog called Fluff run a café along the enormous eponymous road, by themselves most of the time but occasionally catering to the people who appear like ants on the horizon with their deliveries for the scientists up at the Pole, many miles hence. White is all our narrator sees, road or no road, and eventually, arguably, the white gets to her – or maybe she just achieves a sort of skewed serenity.
Over half of the stories in the book also run to not much more than a page or a couple of pages. You’re offered a glimpse – at a pair of hands, say, or newlyweds assaying a door – and it’s enough. Hershman’s characters tell you everything you need to know in an instant (‘It’s me bones… They’re real heavy…’ or ‘I agreed because I wanted you so much’), although sometimes, amidst fragments that retain their puzzled frowns after you finish reading, you’ll have to retrace your steps, have to try and work out what it was she meant.
Perhaps the most satisfying element of The White Road & Other Stories (and this could be the secret key to successful short stories the world over), Hershman has a keen mind, can concoct the sort of slippery knot that hooks you, that has you turning pages to see what happens next (which is rare in short story land, or at least in the short story land I’ve visited). In ‘Brewing a Storm’, for example, a fellow called Bloomfield (the kind of fellow who rates his hotel breakfast on a scale of 1-10) learns there are drawbacks to a new device able to drive bad weather out of the sky. In ‘Evie & the Arfids’, a middle aged woman is caught up in a murky bit of industrial espionage. You read because there is no option, you have to find out what happens next.
But each review route is reductive in its own way. You could chuckle and point out the stories that had you smiling (‘Fish-filled Sea’ for instance concerns a woman who is made nauseous by the smell of her husband’s shower gel, who only loves natural sweat and weasels herself into his armpit at the close of the day), or you could get snagged up among the hawthorn of the more fantastical contributions (such as the cake that soars into the sky at the end of ‘Self-Raising’ or the bizarre Dorian Gray-like machine that inhabits the closing pages of ‘North Cold’). There are stories that will move you in some indeterminate way you’re not keen to examine too closely (take ‘My Name is Henry’ as a for example, which is the kind of backwards literary endeavour lesser writers might look to spread over a whole novel – here it is spare and just right, as the Baby Bear said to the Mama Bear).
Not everything quite rises to the standards set by the great majority of the stories here (one or two of the flash fictions can be a little oblique for their own good, one or two of the stories – like, say, ‘The Angel in the Carpark’ – feel like things you may have read elsewhere), but the riches far, far outweigh the lesser stories (themselves only made lesser by the fact that here is a short story collection in which a great many of the stories will blow your socks off).
Any Cop?: Whether you’re a fan of short stories or not, do yourself some good and get hold of a copy of Tania Hershman’s The White Road & Other Stories. If enough of us do that, then maybe Salt will ask her for another collection and that would be a very good thing indeed.