John Murray are snatching up all the promising newcomers with their Originals imprint (into its second year now), and we’re especially glad to see them embrace, rather than shy away from, the good old short story collection – we’ve already had Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved this summer, and now here’s Anna Metcalfe with her debut collection, Blind Water Pass. Metcalfe’s name might ring a bell for some of you – she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award a couple of years ago and she’s been published in a range of UK-based journals (The Warwick Review, The Lonely Crowd, and Salt’s Best of British Short Stories anthology series) – but even if the name doesn’t rung any bells, her star’s likely on the up, and you heard it here first, in full Technicolor mixed-metaphor.
So: there’s eleven stories here, many of them rather disparate in setting and character, but all circling the same few (rich) themes – family, community, isolation, loneliness, memory and transition – and all written in a similar, straightforward style that’s not exactly minimalist but that still mightn’t appeal to the more maximalist-inclined readers amongst you, a style however, that’s nonetheless effective and evocative. The title piece is set in rural China, where the narrator’s grandmother hears the spirits speak, while her granddaughter, Lily, sells fake proverbs to credulous tourists; when the site at the top of the titular pass is redeveloped, Lily has to confront her own cynicism. It’s an apt piece to act as the book’s fulcrum: like many of the other stories, it’s about generational distance and misunderstanding, a (rightful) skepticism towards redevelopment and Western incursions into non-Western landscapes, and identity: how does, or will, Lily see herself as a young adult in such a politically volatile era? Similarly, Miss Coral in ‘Number Three’ (the Sunday Times shortlisted piece) is struggling to find her niche: shoved into an unwanted role as International Hostess in the school where she’s supposed to be a teacher, she’s got to act as the intermediary between the entitled, dissatisfied gap-year-esque English tutor visiting on the Teach China programme, and the school’s Director, who punishes Miss Coral for Mr. James’ shortcomings and complaints. Miss Coral’s only ally is Moon, a silent scholarship child who takes it all in while reading books of poetry; how, we wonder, will Moon negotiate the world, having witnessed her teacher’s fall? ‘Everything is Aftermath’ is also set in China: here, Wen visits her Aunt Lin, who’s become estranged from her sister, Wen’s mother, after Aunt Lin moved away; since then, her daughter, Wen’s cousin Mei Li, has been killed in an earthquake, and her parents are trying fertility treatment in the hope that they can start over. Wen, like Lily and Moon, is the intermediary between two worlds; her youth gives her the pass to travel from one to the other, but she will eventually have to decide to whom she owes allegiance, and this imbues the story – in which very little actually happens – with an unexpected poignancy.
Four of the stories – ‘Sand’, ‘Rock Sparrow’, ‘Old Ghost’ and ‘Thread’ deal with immigration, war and the plight of refugees, though mostly at a distance: Metcalfe’s quiet, almost detached style avoids high drama, and she rarely gives geographic or political details, so that the reader’s free to fill in the blanks in whatever way feels most significant (though we’re suspecting Syria has to feature in there somewhere). ‘Old Ghost’ opens the collection, and it looks at things lost – photographs, friendships, parents, homes and husbands – but also suggests that hope itself cannot be lost, as name of the eponymous ‘Old Ghost’ suggests. Memory is a powerful force in the book; in ‘Still’, every year, until his death, a man photographs a memorial tree he planted for his dead wife; his granddaughter later uses the photographic sequence to create an art installation that draws her whole family together. While this is, I think, the weakest link in the collection in terms of storytelling (it’s too neat, too resolved, given the raw nature of the subject matter), the idea of art as transformative and healing is one that recurs, as Metcalfe’s characters return over and over to poetry and literature as ways of making meaningful their lives.
Any Cop?: There’s not a lot of plot here; it’s a book that thrives on undercurrents and imagery and themes rather than action or humour, and so it’ll likely appeal to the literary types rather than those who want a well-told-tale or a rollicking adventure over implicated war stories or quiet tales of woe. But Metcalfe’s got a strong range of cultural and political reference points and a way with words, and so we think she’ll be going far.