Salt Publishing have been running the Scott Prize for unpublished collections of short stories since 2010; it’s a slightly peculiar set-up, with multiple winners each year (though that’s set to change in 2013, when they’re dropping back to a more conventional winner-takes-all approach) and Carys Bray’s Sweet Home nabbed one of the gongs in 2012. The Scott/Salt pedigree, short as it is, is a good one: one of 2011’s winners, A.J. Ashworth, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize for story collections this year, and one of the inaugural 2010 winners, Tom Vowler, won the Edge Hill Reader’s Prize in 2011. So Bray’s book, already a prize-winning début, is in good company. It’s also been published at a pretty fortuitous time in Salt’s history—just as Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse made it to the Man Booker 2012 shortlist. That’s made for an increased profile in the mainstream media for Salt (and other small presses), which ought, in turn, to help deserving story collections like Sweet Home reach a wider audience than they might historically have hoped for.
Enough context, then; onto the book. There’s seventeen short stories, all of them linked by themes of family life and parenthood. Bray’s style is lyrical, but uncluttered; most of the stories are fairly realistic in their treatment of these, though a couple are very much in the line of fairy-tales; and, in the same vein as Helen Simpson (whose Hey Yeah Right Get A Life is the stand-out influence here), Bray eschews the sentimentalisation of children and childhood, so that there’s a dark, melancholic edge to several of the stories that very much rings true to life.
The two that impressed me most were ‘Under Covers’ and ‘Love: Terms and Conditions’. The former has the best first line in the book (or in any story I’ve read in recent months): ‘Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat.’ Here, two teenage girls, new friends, watch an elderly neighbour fish her underwear out the hedge, while Carol, the neighbour, remembers her deceased husband and their long marriage. Bray manages to convey the romance and beauty in everyday, non-glamorous love incredibly well, with Boris’s clumsy, awkward affection and Carol’s impatience and gratitude, and her brisk description of breast cancer overcome neatly avoids maudlin sentiment: ‘it was the other breast that bothered her, dangling jollily, as if it didn’t know yet; it left her feeling unbalanced; it was about as much use as a solitary shoe’. The collapse of the young girls’ relationship—faltering over meanness and gossip—is beautifully summed up: ‘Louisa’s words unfasten their tentative friendship, leaving it in two pieces like a split end.’ In ‘Love: Terms and Conditions’, intergenerational conflict is excellently sketched out as a woman brings her kids to visit their demanding grandparents, which leads to her reflecting on her own abilities as a parent—it’s one of the happier, funnier pieces in the book, and the narrator’s descriptions of her children are loving and precise: Adam ‘is barely put together: jumbly, slouching, still soft-skinned, trying on opinions, wearing ideas then discarding them like socks.’ ‘The Baby Aisle’, a more surreal piece, was another stand-out, set in a world where children are bought in the supermarket and overtired shoppers are talked into taking home discounted BOGOF twins. Bray’s details are excellent—the kids’ pre-assigned names, for example, are brilliant class-markers: ‘Kian and Keira from Kwik Save’, and the ‘Archies, Sebastians and Theodores’ from Waitrose.
Several of the stories have a darker edge, perhaps most notably ‘Just In Case’, in which the narrator, whose baby has died, rather ominously ‘borrows’ her neighbour’s infant, and ‘The Countdown’, which features an obsessive compulsive man anticipating with loving terror the birth of his first child. Slightly less successful, to my mind, were the stories more obviously inspired by fairy tales – ‘Sweet Home’ and ‘The Ice Baby’ – which, though well-formed works in their own right, perhaps draw on a re-writing/modernising tendency that’s been overworked, whether in films (Jan Svankmajer) or in literature (Emma Donaghue, Angela Carter). That said, there’s clearly a market for it, so it might be a matter of individual fairy-tale-fatigue. And ‘Sweet Home’ is an excellent title for the collection, implying as it does both the affection and joy of family life, and the less wondrous flip-side, the death and sadness that infiltrates the home, whether you’re an old lady roasted as a witch in your own oven, an elderly woman unravelling with dementia (in ‘My Burglar’), or a father who can’t save his own son from drug addiction (‘The Rescue’). And some stories neatly and realistically encapsulate both visions—’Wooden Mum’ shows us a woman struggling to cope with her son’s Asperger’s diagnosis, but who recalls the sheer pleasure of his birth: ‘I was too happy to smile. I couldn’t risk the joy escaping through my mouth like a puncture.’
Any Cop?: Yes. It’s an impressive first collection with enough range that, despite the recurrent themes, it doesn’t feel at all repetitive. A catalogue of parental horror and humour, it’s full of precise and startling imagery. An excellent stocking-filler this Christmas. (Though, as much as I hate to invoke a gender stereotype, it probably wouldn’t be one for your macho lads-mag aficionado of a brother-in-law.)