Picture this – you’re a woman, a wife, home alone at night and in bed. Your husband creeps in past midnight, and on sliding under the sheets he turns toward you, romance on his mind. But…
‘He’d come to her bed unwashed, with the smell of another woman’s underneath all over him. She’d felt as if her head was rising; would never have expected to recognise such an odour so immediately when it assailed her. But it was just like the smell of her own underneath, the one that she made sure to clean and dress, like a gleaming, newly-caught fish, lest it flop from between her thighs and swim upriver. She clapped a hand over her mouth as he snuggled into her, so she didn’t leap up and scream it at him: Is so all woman underneath smell the same, Errol?’
It’s not only the Jamaican housewife who has been slapped in the face here – with the ‘nakedness’ of the situation, the brutal honesty of the scene, the reader has been too. And in this short story collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway, the British Jamaican writer Leone Ross exhibits this quality time and again – of inviting, even dragging the reader to a place with no softness, and then dumping them there:
‘…the guide offered them bulging packs of cheap sweets. Lollipops, bubblegum, indeterminate suckable things: brightly coloured sugar. ‘There will be hundreds of children calling out to you,’ he explained. ‘Give them this.’
The other tourists took them easily…In the first village, the children ran screaming towards them, hands outstretched, resplendent rags, little knees pumping frantically. ‘Helloooo, helloooo,’ they cried,…’Minty, minty,’ they called. The tourists threw the sweets out, into hands, bouncing off heads, and the children scrabbled in the dirt. … It was like feeding animals at the zoo.’
From story to story, Ross’s targets roam free: dyslexia, giving up on one’s dreams and the ugliness within the world of modelling, body dysmorphia and eating disorders, homophobia, the violence meted out to young black men, and the assurance a good friend can bring. Moreover, the author is inclined to blend disparate ideas, interweave separate threads into a single story, and say something significant about each. But not even once does the politics overwhelm the story – in taking care to build a convincing world, and so wrap her Weltanschauung within an expertly crafted tale, Ross demonstrates rare finesse.
Ross is a fortysomething woman, British born and Jamaican raised – and these elements surface in surprising ways. If you’ve ever wondered what the female equivalent of a Stepford Wife might look like, you’ll find him here. Or what it’s like to be of African heritage, and then return to Africa from the diaspora, only to discover you’re more European than you thought. Or when you try to be bold and political and ‘woke’ but are going through a midlife crisis, and are too busy dying on your feet.
The blending of the personal and political is one standout feature of this collection – and another is sex. After serving up the personal, the political, the surreal and speculative, Ross plays her curve ball – erotica. 99% of Erotic fiction is of course utter drivel, relying on cliché and ‘brute force’ to get the reader home. But in Ross’s erotica there is holistic character, personality, individuality, story – and then sex:
‘Today I feel like an executive. My hair is scraped off my face and the make-up is flawless. Walking into a classy restaurant, the London sun streams through the French windows, melting the clientele like individual ice cream cakes. I’m wearing a black suit and peach lingerie. My heels are sensible and expensive. Before I leave the office my boss tells me to use everything I’ve got. He winks. He thinks he’s a feminist. But he is not above pimping me out.’
In 2017, ‘diverse fiction’ is on the agenda. And why not – read something different, by someone different, outside one’s normal locus of interests and concerns etc. To some extent however, it’s led to a ‘tickboxing’ mentality. But if you pick up Come Let Us Sing Anyway, be sure that you won’t have to chalk it down to your good deed for the day – it is, without qualification, among the finest contemporary short fiction out there.
Any Cop?: Measure these stories by any metric – ingenuity, originality, range, style – this collection is a showcase for all that short fiction can be. It’s jaw-dropping, hilarious, painful and hot. What a ride…