“Quiet stories of intimate drama” – The South Westerlies by Jane Fraser

Jane Fraser is good on detail. I thought this time and again, reading her debut collection of short stories, published by Salt. Here she is, for instance, describing a butcher’s shop window:

“…hidden behind the façade of the shop window where the sheets of greaseproof paper hang on steel hooks at the end of each day and close us off from the pavement and the rest of the world.”

Here is a walk in the woods:

“There is a feeling of all the years rolling into one. It could be anytime. There is just this place: the brown-needled path; the fir cones littering the verge, the large fat ones that you really want, too high, out of reach; Honey, the retriever shaking in the bracken, too timid to walk through the shadowy path.”

Here a character visits her father-in-law’s place:

“There are scores of pairs of shoes stacked in the living room, lined up under the sideboard as if he needs all these shoes for the places he might go, though he never goes anywhere anymore.”

The South Westerlies is Fraser’s debut collection. 18 stories set predominantly in and around the Gower peninsula, a short drive from Swansea. Some of the stories are relatively straightforward – ‘Out of Season’, for instance, which concerns the quiet passing of an adolescent romance. And some of the stories are downright off – ‘A Passing Front’, which concerns the end of a marriage and a box of wasp corpses, we’re looking at you. As we’ve touched on above, Fraser is great at jarring detail, writing that makes you sit up, take notice, pay extra attention. But she is also good when it comes to powerful situations, juxtapositions of character that feel alive with possible conflict (‘Look What the Wind’s Blown In’, for instance, which tells the story of an irascible older parent and the attempts made by a daughter-in-law to do the right thing). Most importantly of all, if you’re anything like me and you try to hopscotch ahead to work out in your own mind how a story might resolve itself, Fraser rarely feels cliched. Her writing surprises.

There are stories here (‘The Grey Mare’, for instance, which concerns a long brewing family conflict) that feel as old as time, that could have been written by William Trevor, that evoke that familiar mixture of warmth and creeping unease you find in the best of Trevor’s stories. There are stories here that evoke Kem Nunn (‘In Search of the Perfect Wave’ and ‘Some People Like Their Fish To Taste More Like Chicken’), stories that evoke Paul Lynch (one of The South Westerlies‘ highlights is a story called ‘Leave the Light on For Me’ which focuses upon the after-effects of a bereavement but seems to conjure injured centuries of unchanging rural family life), stories that flirt with the fantastic in a way that leaves me beggared for comparison (‘Chasing the Shadow’). All of which underlines the fact that Fraser is a writer who can inhabit characters resoundingly different from one another despite living cheek by jowl in the same community.

But more than that, and to come back to the point we were trying to make at the start of the review, Fraser writes words that strip the world from around you, creates stories that plunge you into a world brought to life as vividly as if you were to stick your head in a bucket of icy water. Here, for instance:

“Unpeopled, this landscape forged from limestone appears even more spectacular: upended cliffs, faulted and fissured, jutting out into the jaws of the Atlantic which today is in full swell and an offshore breeze holding up the faces of the waves, spume blown back to sea. You can feel the past here, breathe in the remnants of ancestors, taste that trickle of time.”

Read that last sentence again:

“You can feel the past here, breathe in the remnants of ancestors, taste that trickle of time.”

It’s pretty fucking good, isn’t it? All told, The South Westerlies was one of those happy accidents, a book that I decided to try because (a) I’d just got to the end of a long novel (James Ellroy’s This Storm) and (b) felt like the soothing balm of some short stories – and there The South Westerlies was. Following James Ellroy is never easy but I’ll be damned if Fraser wasn’t up to the job. We all know that short stories are not the easiest of sells – and that for every short story collection that seems to get more than its fair share of reviews a half dozen probably won’t register. The South Westerlies is a collection that should register, is a collection that should be reviewed in the broadsheets, Fraser a writer who warrants more attention. Here’s hoping she gets it.

Any Cop?: One of those books that arrives like a surprise, unexpected, a bolt from the blue, and knocks you back on your heels with the pleasure of reading it. A terrific debut short story collection.

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