“It’s a zinger” – Safely Gathered In by Sarah Schofield

IMG_13Oct2021at125254If you’re an aficionado of UK independent publishing and also into short stories, then there’s a solid chance you’ve already encountered Sarah Schofield’s work. She’s a Comma Press stalwart, her stories having been featured in several of their themed anthologies (LemistryBio-PunkThought XBeta Life and The New Abject, amongst others); she was in Best of British Short Stories 2020; she won the Orange New Voices Prize and was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize and the Guardian Travel Writing Competition; she’s even been in Woman’s Weekly. There, you might think, is a writer of range – and you’d be correct. Comma have now published her first collection, Safely Gathered In, and it’s a zinger.

The stories gathered here range from the very short (a couple of pages) to more lengthy pieces, and they explore issues from the relationship between science, technology and ethics, and the liminal spaces between the animate and the inanimate, to parent-child relationships, class, UK politics, memory and nostalgia, and the grim far-reaching tentacles of free market capitalism. It’s a smart and subtle collection, consistently engaging and immensely readable; it plays with genre, including SF and speculative fiction, as well as formal experimentation and straight-up realism. It’s a fun book, but thought-provoking and poignant at the same time.

Some highlights: the opening story, ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ features a woman who’s been widowed and has immediately entered into a fulfilling relationship with another man – but she’s now getting pre-scheduled emails from her dead husband, reminding her about the MOT and the importance of taking holidays. She talks this over with her sister, who suggests it’s thoughtful; the widow, however, thinks it’s controlling and weird. Here, Schofield probes at family secrets and intimacy, and at the half-life of the past as it seeps through the present, themes that recur throughout the collection, most explicitly in the title story and ‘Nostalgia4Beginners’, both of which subvert the advertising and marketing industries’ own exploitation of consumer sentimentality.

‘Two Feet Together’, in which a child tries to process her father’s infidelity and her mother’s reaction via playing it all out with her dolls, is reminiscent of AM Homes at her best (a less sexually explicit but equally memorable ‘A Real Doll’). ‘Termination Happy Meal’ records a post-abortion lunch scene between a mother and her teenage daughter; it’s understated and haunting – a ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ for today’s kids. ‘Expectant Management’ acts almost like a companion piece: here, a head teacher tries to carry on as she undergoes a miscarriage: here we’ve got the brutality of British society’s customary silence around pregnancy loss, but with a little ghostliness thrown in. ‘The Bactogarden’ and ‘Benzene Dreams’, and, to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Shake Me and I Rattle’, look at how the capitalist exploitation of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals affect our lives; the latter story has a dementia sufferer at its heart, and ‘The Bactogarden’ sketches a world in which upper-class luxury and experimental cuisine exist alongside increasing climate chaos and the breakdown of our cities’ physical infrastructure. ‘Rejoice’, too, takes a hard look at failures of the state and it’s care systems: this piece is set firmly in the present and showcases a family torn apart by Covid-19 due to government underfunding of the healthcare system – here we’ve got an unblinking look at the resurgence of the right, in the figure of a small child who doesn’t know any better. Well, indeed.

Any Cop?: Whether you’re into stories about souring marriages, taxidermy, genetic engineering, sibling relationships or foraging for mushrooms, there’s something for you here. We’re already looking forward to Schofield’s second book.

Valerie O’Riordan

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