Jellyfish is Galloway’s fourth collection (she’s also got three novels, a poetry collection and a bunch of eclectic other texts, from memoir to prose-poetry hybrids); it came out originally in 2015 with the now-defunct Freight Books, and subsequently ended up in a post-liquidation no-man’s-land. Fortunately, Granta know a good ‘un when they see it, and they’ve scooped it up for reissuing.
There are sixteen stories here, ranging from those a couple of pages in length (‘Looking At You’) to those over fifty (‘Gold’), and while, thematically, they’re mostly concerned in one fashion or another with relationships, that doesn’t mean they’re in any way similar or predictable: she’s looking at everything from teen sex to psychiatric-ward friendships and post-retirement love affairs. Galloway’s prose is sharply surprising: from this – ‘She flexed one of his knees, making his leg flop like something filleted’ – to this: ‘The word toxic skipped through Martha’s head like a black lamp, disappeared.’ Her stories – or, many of them – are perhaps best described (permission to riff off Virginia Woolf here, please) as explorations of moments rather than A-to-Z arcs tracing the teleology of a singular plot: she uses her allotted pages to carefully consider an instant in time or a state of being, to dig down, rather than wide, meaning that the satisfaction derived from these stories is less that of situations resolved and more that of situations recognised. For all her exactitude of imagery, her work lingers as an impression of a mood.
One of the stand-out pieces is ‘and drugs and rock and roll’, which focuses on an evening in a psychiatric hospital, and follows one inmate – Alma – as she wanders from ward to kitchen to Quiet Room, trying to find her missing almost-friend, Michelle; it’s got echoes of Galloway’s debut novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, in terms of its attention to mental health (a recurrent theme here), with a dash of Tracy Beaker and Girl, Interrupted on top. ‘That Was Then, This Is Now (1)’ is a glorious hymn to youthful sex, in all its exploration and delight and energy; it’s celebratory rather than prurient, and there’s nary a hint of the male gaze. Top stuff. ‘Fine Day’ shows us a (horrible) husband walking out on his wife for the umpteenth time; while there’s no clear scene that his departure is definitive, the story focuses on the wife’s shifting attitude and her decision to move on, at last; this one skewers the passive-aggressive jargon of a partner refusing to accept compromise: ‘Let’s be reasonable’, he says, ‘we needn’t classify this as failure.’ In ‘Gold‘, the longest piece, and one of the few that explores a more expansive timeline, we see Grace, the unplanned, and latterly abandoned, child of a distant mother, as she spends a lifetime building up defensive routines only for a chance encounter in an art gallery to lead to an unexpected and gentle love; the story’s development is startling (no spoilers), but, like all Galloway’s work, it feels finally both inevitable and subtle. Finally, ‘Romantic‘ is a story about a seduction in a bar, but it’s not clichéd, it’s not creepy, it’s invigorating and hopeful and sweet, and – unlikely as I’m perhaps making it sound – credible. Galloway’s true gift isn’t the clever assemblage of simile, but the ability to find the truth – the best possible truth – in the most tired of scenarios.
Any Cop?: Not all the stories are as good as the best, but that’s true of any collection; overall, this is an excellent read, and it’s a good thing Granta came to its rescue.