“Wraithish fingers and ungentle mouths” – salt slow by Julia Armfield

Julia Armfield’s debut short story collection seems to have garnered much in the way of positive praise since it was published, and the hardback comes lavishly adorned with praise from the likes of Daisy Johnson (who Armfield’s writing favours – you could see potential publishers circling like sharks to snap up the next Daisy Johnson), Sam Byers and Sinead Gleason. Ah, you might be thinking, whenever Bookmunch start reviews in this way it’s usually because we don’t like the book in question and reckon it’s been praised unduly – but what do you know? On this occasion we liked salt slow about as much as everyone else appears to have.

What you have here are nine short stories, usually from the point of view of a young woman, refracted through some off-kilter prisms. So, for instance, with ‘Mantis’, you have a teenage girl in among a clutch of other teenage girls, all of whom are going through various changes – except our narrator seems to be enduring a more pronounced change. The transformations are not just limited to our narrators themselves – ‘Granite’ charts the relatively straightforward (at least at first) path of a fledgling romance that reaches its apotheosis in “Something granular – granite or porous limestone.” The title story births otherworldly tentacular creatures. ‘Cassandra After’ finds a widow revisited by her other half, after her other half has died. On occasion (with ‘Mantis’, say, as an example) you can sort of see the ending coming; but more often than not, Armfield twists her tales and conjures unusual shapes from her stories.

As you progress through the book, you find:

“The stories are stranger here, or perhaps they are now simply far enough away from where they started to accept more outlandish versions of things they have heard before.”

Sometimes you wonder slightly critically if the narrative point of view is too similar story to story (or if your own viewpoint as an 800-year old man means that you’re not entirely the demographic for readership), but then you get to ‘Stop Your Women’s Ears With Wax’, a story about a band (of what may be women or may be feathered creatures) who inspire rioting and all kinds of wildness among their fans, and you read of a male journalist (not unlike yourself) who asks,

Your core audience seems to be exclusively teenaged girls, a recent magazine profile had noted, asking the band how they accounted for this bias. Well, why would there be anyone else, the lead guitarist had replied, you don’t come to a party you weren’t invited to.

As with many people who cross the band, the journalist suffers an unpleasant, slightly mysterious fate:

“Some weeks later, it was fleetingly reported in the same publication that the journalist would be taking an extended leave of absence due to illness and another writer was drafted to cover his regular slot.”

So, you know, we’re keen not to get on the wrong side of Julia Armfield in case any of these powers extend beyond the pages of her short stories. Because, as we say, there is a lot to like. ‘The Great Awake’, for instance, which finds people’s actual sleep become shadowy persons in their own right, the owners bereft of slumber, wakefulness existing as sulky adolescent translucent shadows causing all sorts of low level mischief. Terrific story. Boom. ‘Formerly Feral’, about a young girl whose father remarries a woman who has a pet wolf. Terrific story. Also boom. What’s more, Armfield has quite the way with a cutting phrase, snip-snip-snipping words out of the paper and juxtaposing them in such a way as to have you chuckling at her audacity. These worlds, rubbing shoulders and leaving oily imprints behind on your fingers, see “colossal things, antediluvian, too close to breaking the surface”, find “wraithish fingers and ungentle mouth”s, strike you with “a smell of liniment and freeze-dried coffee”, bury you beneath a “convocation” of “pulsing bells like so many painful hearts.” There are times (particularly the story ‘Cassandra After’ but not just ‘Cassandra After’) when the ghost of Amphigorey surfaces, reminding you of that Edward Gorey book about all of the dead children [Ed. see The Gashlycrumb Tinies].

If you were to put Armfield’s book alongside Jane Fraser’s The South Westerlies, you might quietly wish for the broad range of different characters that Fraser inhabits; but then again, if you were to file salt slow alongside, say, Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, you’d find a new writer pretty squarely duking it out with someone who has made quite the name for themselves. Not bad for a debut.

Any Cop?: We came looking for a fight but we were wrongfooted, bewitched and beguiled and we’ll be looking forward to what we presume will be Armfield’s debut novel.

 

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