“The journey took seven hours and several weeks off Henry’s life – or so it felt, as their driver dodged potholes and craters and ruffled the hides of browsing cattle. It ought to have been a relief to stop; yet when they refuelled in a dirt-track town, a cloud of dragonflies simmered above their vehicle and they were instantly surrounded by beggars. Vaing stared at the front headrest, having first checked that the doors were locked, but when an amputee caressed Henry with his stump through the open window they had to scrabble for some riel notes to get rid of him. Henry sweated as small brown fingers tapped against the glass, and sighed with relief when their driver returned to swat the children away.”
‘Not every experience in life is a novel,’ the writer Eley Williams has commented re. short stories. And certainly, the classical trajectory for full-length fiction—the setup, exposition of character, action and dramatic high point, followed unfailingly by conflict resolution – has been challenged most by the shorter form. It’s evolved to a point where plot is now often spurned, sacrificed for deeper characterisation and ‘atmosphere’. The short story lends itself to rule-breaking – to subversion, to a lack of ‘neatness’ and obscured meanings. To wit, precisely because ‘…not every experience in life is a novel’, the form has largely moved away from capturing whole lives, to riff instead upon moments of lives.
All good then…barring one, remaining question: can a contemporary short story exhibit classical form, without seeming staid? Can it be a novel in miniature – and hit the sweet-spot for today’s reader? Well without hesitation, The Ghost Who Bled, a collection of short stories by Gregory Norminton, fulfils this very brief.
The worlds Norminton builds are holistic, feeling novel-like in their completeness. Moreover they are lush and other-worldly, especially for a Western reader. He takes us to post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the ‘after-life’ inhabited by a Japanese ‘Kamikaze’ pilot, a Britain emerging out of the Dark Ages and on the cusp of the modern age, and in a story reminiscent of the movie The Devil’s Double, to Gulf War-era Iraq. This alone – this variation of time and place – makes the worlds these stories inhabit both exotic and immersive. There is also some variation in tone, being occasionally playful or painful – but mostly the author is detached, allowing the reader to uncover partially obscured layers; or not.
So what are the author’s targets – those obscured layers? There are riffs on the clashing of egos – the consequences of never being able to let things go. And the will to survive, to go on living, even when you know your time is about to run dry. Another story dovetails the fallout of a hardened, emboldened right in US politics, with the urge to get jiggy with it. And in an era when blasphemy laws and other modes of censorship are overtly and covertly practised, Norminton takes a step back to when such boundaries were first being tested within a new, restless society – Enlightenment-era Britain.
Beyond the exoticness of setting and contemporary edge to many of the hidden layers, the collection exhibits another modern facet: a penchant for the daring. In my favourite short, ‘Zero + 30’, our ‘hero’ is a well-meaning but blundering white man married to an Asian woman, a Cambodian, returning to the killing fields she once fled. Despite himself he is repulsed by the ubiquitous poor, rebukes himself for finding the locals inscrutable, finds that even the police are in on tourist scams and then, after all that, his wife admits that she deliberately seduced him as a way to escape to the West. In the wrong hands, this could all seem appalling – a writer trying to shock – but with characterisation this well-measured, this strong, it adds to an incredibly powerful tale of a middle-aged Cambodian woman who, as a girl, survived the Khmer Rouge.
Any Cop?: The Ghost Who Bled is an at once classical and contemporary; a collection of stories that are multi-layered, subtle and complete – each one a bottled miniature. This is very fine literally fiction – relevant, not archaic or esoteric, and sometimes breath-taking for its novel-like range and ambition.