Hitting Trees with Sticks is the first short story collection from Jane Rogers, author of eight previous novels including the most recent and wonderful The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Longlisted for 2012 Man Booker and winner of 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award). I was very much looking forward to reading this collection and I wasn’t disappointed.
There are some beautifully told stories here that take the reader on a stimulating trip around the world and into the lives of well drawn, fascinating characters. We see a young, naive designer travel to Nigeria in the hope of using her dressmaking skills to benefit women in a refuge, but her hope and innocence lead to disaster; a man in his sixties returns to a snow covered Southern France where the memory of an encounter with a French woman haunts his thoughts; a woman scrabbles to find her lost mobile phone and the memory of her father in the baked rocks of Australia and a tense atmosphere aboard a boat in the Caribbean. Back in England and often more specifically Manchester, we witness the moment a child first asks her mother where she was conceived as they stand slicing runner beans in their kitchen, the raw absence left by Stevie through the eyes of those who knew him, the chilling strangeness of a god daughter waking to find the flat she is house sitting for her god father trashed and ruined and my favourite, ‘Lucky’, the painful but beguiling story of a teenage crush that I’m sure will leave many readers squirming in their own memories.
Another favourite story was ‘Birds of American River’ where a terminally ill woman spends a last holiday alone on an island off Southern Australia. She watches a group of once wild, now caged, birds who remain in their cage despite an open door as they sit ‘hunched up against the back of their cage. Like me. Angry, afraid.’ They are too scared to fly away and we see in the birds her own fear of impending death and the freedom it could offer her soul. The story ends unexpectedly and beautifully.
What this collection does with so much warmth, humour and splendid observation is show us both the consistency of human nature along with its contradictions. Each of these stories resonates in the mind of the reader long after the story has finished helped by the repetition of themes and symbols throughout. Rogers’s ability to step into the shoes of so many and varied characters and speak with their individual voices with empathy and insight is one to be treasured. Although the subject matter of the stories is often one of loss, death, grief and guilt they are anything but miserable: Ped-O-Matique, the story of a woman trapped in an airport’s massage chair had me laughing out loud. Rogers always takes the path least expected and the result is uplifting and joyful. She has the ability to focus on the intensity of emotion with such dazzling prose that the reader is left with no doubt that this is a writer with a rare and remarkable skill. When I read descriptions such as air so cold it felt ‘as solid as ice cream in my lungs’ I know I’m in good hands.
Any Cop?: Absolutely yes. This is a fabulous collection that deserves to be widely read.