Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca Burns’

‘Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës’ (ed. A. J. Ashworth)

In anthology, Poetry, Short Stories on September 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

A.J.Ashworth, the editor of Red Room – a collection of short stories (and a poem) ‘all inspired by the Brontës, their lives, their work’ – writes in her introduction to the collection that ‘[t]he Brontës fascinate us’. There is no doubt this is the case, despite the passage of over a hundred and fifty years since the death of Charlotte, the last Brontë sister. Such continued adoration was recently evidenced by a story in the Telegraph, concerning the sale of a Charlotte Brontë letter, written to an admirer of Jane Eyre, which fetched around £24,000. It was with interest, then, and a shared love of some Brontë texts, that I approached Red Room, a collection of stories ‘written by some of the best short story writers in Britain today’.

Red Room Bronte

A percentage of the sales of the anthology will raise funds for The Brontë Birthplace Trust in Thornton. Trustees and readers will not be disappointed by their efforts. This is a marvellous little book; the stories themselves only take up about 120 pages, but they are brilliant evocations of the Brontë novels, poems, or scenes from their lives. The book contains a useful list of biographies at the end and – cleverly included by the editor – a collection of notes recording the inspiration behind the stories, helping the reader understand how each writer came to construct their story, and the Brontë novel/poem/experience that they took as their springboard.

A couple of the writers in the collection I was familiar with – Man Booker-shortlisted Alison Moore and Saboteur-nominated Tania Hershman. Moore’s story, ‘Stonecrop’ takes its inspiration from a line in Wuthering Heights, and portrays a timid, dominated young girl who turns out to be not so innocent or naïve after all. Hershman’s story, ‘A Shower of Curates’, takes the first lines of all the Brontë novels to create a mid-Victorian remembrance; that is, a kind of diary entry written by a nameless male. A fun exercise for the reader would be to go back to the Brontë novels and see where Hershman used the first lines and how they inspired her.

David Constantine’s ‘Ashton and Elaine’ is a hauntingly brilliant piece of writing, one of the best stories I have read this year. His intention had been to provide ‘a sort of utopian answering back against [the] cruelty’. He is achingly effective in depicting a damaged, broken child in Ashton, who had been hurt by people unknown to the extent that he ‘shook as though under the skin he was packed with raddling ice’. Mute though not uncommunicative, Ashton is sent to a children’s home, standing on the moors in a ‘scoop of frozen stillness’, in order to recover. Surrounded by snow and ice, he does not see desolation or isolation in the moors; instead, the snowfall opens up chinks in his silent defence – ‘nothing very concrete or easily describable, more like a shift of light over a surface of ice, snow or water.’ The rugged landscape of the moors emblemised the passionate relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights; in ‘Ashton and Elaine’, Constantine teases out the nurturing, less violent benefits of the moors. Ashton’s slowly developing relationship with Elaine and her family is handled tenderly, never mawkishly, even during the very moving scene when Ashton finally speaks. This is a lovely story, containing passages that I returned to and read again because of their understated beauty.

Equally powerful is Sarah Dobbs’ ‘Behind all the Closed Doors’, which ‘was written as an attempt to understand the grief that goes with losing a parent at such a young age.’ Dobbs doesn’t specify which – if any – Brontë novel or poem she singles out for inspiration, but the impact of her story loses none of its resonance for that. Through gradual hints and suggestions, we learn that young Henry’s mother has died. Random adults care for him, an uncle who ‘looks a bit like Dad. If Dad’s features had been smudged away like the numbers on the board’. Henry’s life has disintegrated. He goes to sleep dressed in his school uniform. In a powerful reflection of the family’s now-shattered life, he cuts his mother’s favourite book – presumably Wuthering Heights – to pieces. Although riddled with grief, the story has comic passages (said uncle, mashing eggs in the kitchen smells of ‘poo and pepper’), and captures the probing, inquisitive nature of a child’s bereavement.

Felicity Skelton’s imagining of an amorous meeting between Charlotte Brontë and Napoleon is also well written (‘The Curate’s Wife – A Fantasy’); Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘Emily B’ is disarmingly subtle yet powerful with its portrait of the Brontë sister. A gorgeous opening: ‘Too much rain/in the blood. Too much/cloud in the lungs.’

If I were a Trustee of The Brontë Birthplace Trust, I would be proud to have Red Room as a means of raising funds. This is a fantastic collection of stories, a real treat for all Brontë-lovers and for those who simply love a good read.

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‘Stations’ (ed. Cherry Potts)

In anthology on July 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

The backcover blurb for Stations states that that the anthology contains “[A] story for every station on the Overground line in East and South London […]”. There are twenty-four in all and the first point to be made about this collection is to note an absence – of a route map. For readers not living in London or familiar with the Overground Line, a visual aid as to how these stations (and stories) link together would have been very useful and might have provided a sense of cohesiveness to the collection as a whole.

Similarly, the inclusion of a brief biography of each author would have been welcome. I like to read more about the authors contained in an anthology, particularly if I’m struck by a certain story. It’s a personal preference, but one usually met in other anthologies.

Stations Arachne Press

The stories themselves vary in quality though are of similar length – around seven pages, some shorter, some longer; possibly the perfect length for a journey between stations. Carol Hardman’s ‘Bloody Marys and a bowl of Pho’ (Hoxton) is a modern-day, urban take on the vampire narratives so current at the moment. It is well-written and funny. ‘Platform Zero’ (Haggerston) by Michael Trimmer also offers a quirky version of another, familiar theme – that of the parallel universe. ‘The Beetle’ by Ellie Stewart (Wapping) is also well-paced and moving in its portrayal of a broken relationship. Peter Morgan’s ‘Mr Forest Hill Station’ (Forest Hill) also stands out due to its tender depiction of the bond between strangers, meeting occasionally in the big city.

A common theme the stories share is the sense of locale; all stories give a real sense of London’s enclaves, those small areas threaded together by transport links. In some stories the topography is described in minute detail: ‘ ‘Left out of the station entrance,’ she had said, ‘not far until a sort-of-small-road-kind-of-more-like-an-alley which you need to go down all the way, then through the gap-between-the-shops to cross the big street, then to the right for a bit until you get to a shop with a kind-of-old-fashioned-green-sign and some little writing in the window […].’ (‘Three Things to Do in Surrey Quays’, Adrian Gantlope). It is enlightening to the non-London resident to think of London in such small terms, as described above.

Many stories also focus upon the fragility and fleetingness of relationships. For example, Rob Walton describes an odd kind of love affair in ‘Yellow Tulips’ (New Cross Gate), between the narrator, and John and Alex. The affair itself seems unsatisfactory and temporary, based on hurried meetings. Walton is effective at capturing the instability of the relationship: ‘It is possible to live in a city, a town, a village, an area of a city for a short time and make new friends, close friends, have altogether deeper relationships. Without the shared past or common references you can dive into the here and now, establish a new sort of relationship, one you haven’t tried before. Do all the things you didn’t do in the other places you lived. Then move on and become a new you, or be one of the other yous [sic] in another new place.’

The difficulty in describing these kind of brief, random relationships, in short stories only a few pages long, is that the reader does not have long to inhabit the characters, to really get inside their skins and empathise with them as a friendship or love affairs shatter or flare into view. The writing has to be crisp, the author at the top of their game for a story so short and with such subject matter to resonate. Stories like ‘Yellow Tulips’ and ‘Mr Forest Hill Station’ achieve this, with their touching portrayal of how fragmented, passing moments can leave a lasting impression. In other stories where this is not achieved, the reader consumes them easily and moves on.

Perhaps this was the ambition of the editors: to meet the need of a busy commuter, seeking entertainment on their voyage in and out of the heart of the metropolis. To readers outside of London, some stories stand better than others, lingering past the journey’s end.

‘Best European Fiction 2013’ (ed. Alexsander Hemon)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on May 26, 2013 at 11:40 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

I haven’t read much in the way of translated texts before so this was my first exposure to many of the writers featured in Best European Fiction 2013. And, as the editors of the anthology might hope, as too the individual writers, I was so struck by the quality of the work that I plan on reading more by the authors in the future.

Introducing European writers to a wider audience is the anthology’s ambition, as cheerfully alluded to in the Preface by John Banville and Introduction by Aleksander Hemon. Yet Hemon is not fixated upon sales, more the continued ‘flow of communication’ between writer and reader; Banville is keen to celebrate the ‘infinite undependability of words’, the endless negotiation between origin and meaning that emblemises the act of translation. The writers picked for this anthology range across every country in Europe and the quality of their prose is very high.

Best European Fiction 2013 Dalkey Archive

The opening story in the collection is a cracker. ‘Before The Breakup’ by Balla (Slovakia) is a powerful exposition of an overbearing, unspecified sense of threat. Miša, the central character, has ‘something’ growing behind her TV set. We never learn what this ‘something’ is, only that it is ‘moving sinister, slowly and inevitable’. We discover that a similar, unidentified thing appears in Miša’s friends’ apartments, driving them out, controlling their behaviour in so much as they pretend it isn’t there. Is this thing a representation of the interference of the state, alluded to by the link one character makes between the thing and ‘actually existing socialism’? Setting this interpretation aside, the story is a great precursor to a collection of European writing.

Similarly, ‘My Creator, My Creation’ by Tiina Raevaara (Finland), is riveting. It is a story told from the perspective of a female robot, designed to cater for her male creator’s needs. The reader is jammed into the robot’s consciousness from the shocking and very first line: ‘Sticks his finger into me and adjusts something, tok-tok, fiddles with some tiny part inside me and gets me moving better […].’ Such a sentence is evocative of the transgressive control the creator has of the robot. She is programmed to conform to the traditional female role, being demure and friendly, and amenable to men. This is not, however, a straightforward story of suppressed outrage or a cry for emancipation. It is more complex than that; indeed, it is a touching love story. The robot strives to connect to her creator, beyond occasional moments of ‘stroking’. The narrative moves along in elliptical, jerky phrases, mirroring the robot’s attempts to understand her growing emotions and make sense of her existence. It is also incredibly sensual, for all the talk of metal and wires:

After that keeps me on later in the evenings, strokes me more slowly than before, maybe he wants to smooth my lumps and bumps, remove the dark oxides from my case, maybe he wants to make me gleam. When it is already far into the night—I have never been on so late in the night—he sighs, touches my innards, and switches me off.

Tiina Raevaara is a writer I want to read again.

The style of ‘Angels on the Inside’ by Dulce Maria Cardosa (Portugal) is different but no less moving. A young man recalls an incident from his childhood, which was essentially a moment when his brother was almost hit by a car. The story is written in an unobtrusive manner with the odd, heart-tugging phrase thrown in; the man and his brother were cherished as ‘our mom was proud of us, more than she was of anything else in life’. Cardosa’s straightforward style allows a sense of foreboding to develop, though the danger is not apparent until the very end of the tale. She is also adept at capturing the sense of being a child; tiny outrages and disappointments produce fleeting emotions as the boys ‘still felt everything in a provisional sort of way’. Lovely, lovely.

There are other gems: ‘Music in the Bone’ (Tomás Mac Símóin, Irish), about a man who is compelled to conduct an imaginary orchestra; ‘Migration’ (Ray French, Welsh), in which a son grieves for his father, suffering from dementia, whom we eventually learn has died; ‘When the Glasses are Lost’ (Žarko Kujundžiski, Macedonian), where characters are trapped in a lift and represent society in microcosm, with all its suspicions and distrust.

There are stories within this Best European Fiction collection that I will revisit again and again. The editor’s ambition – that the collection will encourage readers to pick up books by European writers new to them – has worked for me.

‘Fog And Other Stories’ by Laury A. Egan

In Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on May 13, 2013 at 10:00 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

Fog Laury A Egan

Fog and Other Stories, a collection of stories by Laury A. Egan, is set mostly in America, and Egan is adept at capturing the heat and luxuriant language of the area. The dialogue between characters zips along nicely and is perfectly believable; one can almost imagine the slow, relaxed drawl as characters share murderous intentions. Yes, this indeed is a collection where death and killing features heavily. Wives bury their husbands in barns, cops shoot teenagers, an eighth-grade serial killer selects a victim. However, while Egan allows her characters to vocalise their fears and desires in a plausible way, other elements of the collection are clunky and less seamless.

The first story in the collection, ‘Jango’, starts well. The sultriness and oppressive weather is nicely observed: “For several days, clouds had thrust against each other, promising wind and lightning, but each evening the weather forgot what it was threatening to do and slipped into night, carrying over the expectation of storms to the coming dawn”. Jango is taken on as a gardener for an isolated widow but it is clear she has a secret. It would have been more satisfying to the reader had they been allowed to uncover this secret without the obvious signposts; unfortunately, here, and in other stories, Egan is less accomplished in the passages where she is required to move the plot forward. For example, photographs of Audrey’s dead husband are dotted around the house but are slightly askew; Jango wonders if she kept them like that, “implying something wasn’t straight about her dead husband?” Later, as Jango and Audrey share a romantic meal, the conversation becomes uncomfortable: “Jango didn’t like to talk about the war or his mother, so he reached over and topped up Audrey’s glass and his own […].” Such explanatory passages are awkward and jarring, not as smoothly effective as Egan’s skilled representation of the landscape.

It is a pity, because Egan is convincing in her portrayal of the protagonists’ perspective, with all their thoughts and prejudices. ‘The Man Who Wandered In’ is a touching story about a man suffering from dementia and a daughter regretting lost opportunities for familial tenderness. However, the daughter’s back-story is again heavy-handed: ‘Allyson sighed and took a long gulp of scotch. She had been drinking too much lately, but the stress of her job was terrible, her love life was nonexistent, and her finances were in chaos due to some unwise decisions she’d made on several investments. And then there was the loss of her father’. Too much. These passages remove the satisfaction the reader finds in drawing these conclusions for themselves.

Unfortunately certain parts of the title story of the collection, ‘Fog’, read in a similar way. The protagonist returns to Ireland, though she is not sure why. Her backstory is too explanatory, but Egan does well in her representation of a loving, bickering – albeit ghostly – family unit.

There were stories in this collection that I very much enjoyed – ‘Tiki Bar’, for example, is a clever, humourous feminist daydream – and Egan is a writer blessed with the ability to write effective dialogue. If she can sharpen up the plot and characterisation elements of her narrative, her next collection could really sing.

[30/05/13: Altered to reflect geographical location of the stories]

‘Catching the Barramundi’ by Rebecca Burns

In anthology on May 4, 2013 at 1:15 pm

 -Reviewed by Adrian Slatcher

The stories in Rebecca Burns’ debut collection Catching the Barramundi are primarily focused on the moments of realisation in her characters’ lives, where memories from their past or unacknowledged secrets break out and confront them. The stories are set in a variety of locations, though with a clutch of stories set in a rural Australian outback, and others with a Scottish setting and often focus on loners, waifs and strays. This isolation is often deliberate, or a result of where their life has taken them. So in the title story the protagonist, Connie, is isolated after her husband has died, and not immune to the arrival of a new man into her environment. In ‘The Intruder’, a woman has gone into self-exile (and become mute) in avoidance of the horrors of her past, that are now about to come back and haunt her. Elsewhere, characters are stuck in grim towns, returning there because of illness or divorce, or simply to see what has decayed since they last visited. Whether in Scotland or Australia she is interested in those communities that have been left behind by progress.

Though not consciously themed, there is a clear pattern to much of her writing, where landscape is used to evoke our own emotional landscape, and where her protagonists are almost without exception damaged by difficult lives. Yet though there is misery here, they are not ‘misery memoirs’; the stories are often focused on moments of acceptance, realization or even transcendence. That the problems they have aren’t necessarily resolved at that point, but have reached some moment of recognition or crisis, seems central to her writing. The writing at its best has a certain luminous clarity, at one with the desolate landscapes, though at times the lack of specific detail flattens our engagement with these landscapes.

Catching the Barramundi Rebecca Burns

Reading these stories I was struck at first by their somewhat traditional nature, in that tales of isolation and fracture are a mainstay of a certain type of (usually American) realism. In other words, that familiar tradition – perhaps seen most recently in the writing of someone like E. Annie Proulx – means that the writer has to be at the top of their game. In half a dozen of these stories, Burns achieves that; where sparse detail enables the lives of the characters to be made real with just a few words. None of the stories are long, perhaps indicating the contemporary (often online) market for stories like this, but Burns manages to provide enough meaning for the key images of the stories to stay with the reader beyond the page.

Less successful, I felt, were those stories that seemed closer to reminisces; looking back on college years or in one case, showing a love affair from its beginning to its tragic end, through a not entirely convincing male narrator. Burns seems a careful judge of human emotion, but a little less specific when it comes to the physical world around her – more interested in the interior landscape of the characters than the external one. Where this works best is where the landscape seems at one with the lonely characters – in the title story, for instance, in ‘The Intruder’ and in ‘Hades Landing’ where a sports scholarship student returns to the company mining town for one last time after the company has pulled out.

Like a Nick Cave album, every story here seems to have a tragedy at its heart, and this concentration on death and illness does become a little wearing after a while – with several stories focusing on (different) characters suffering from cancer or other illnesses. The lightness of ‘The Mirror Man’ story – where it is only youthful memory that has expired – is therefore more than welcome.

The contemporary short story is being produced in a somewhat crowded field, and a writer can either work within the tradition or try and step outside of it. Burns is very much within the tradition, and in her best stories her carefully structured vignettes on the loneliness of the human condition hold up. ‘The Intruder’, which was longlisted for the Pushcart Prize, in particular, is her work at its very best. Where the stories are a little more humdrum – the kids in the garden of ‘The Night of the Fox’ for instance – I was yearning for some of the precise uniqueness of Lorrie Moore or Helen Simpson, who can use the finest details to elevate a seemingly tiny piece of someone’s life to a higher pitch.

Throughout the stories, Burns is careful to show, not to tell, but almost always has a design on the reader that doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation. The excellent final story, ‘Painting the Hay Bales’, stands out in this company for leaving the story’s poignancy unspoken. It’s an interesting, coherent and well structured debut, published by an Australian press, and where all of the stories have been published online or in magazines. Its longlisting for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize is a testimony to its qualities. I can imagine certain readers enjoying its control and precision immensely; if I had some doubts it’s because when she gets it right, the terse style and controlled narrative fit so well together that I noticed those stories that fell a little short.

A Cappella Zoo 10 – Spring 2013

In Magazine on April 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

About thirty or so pages into this collection is a set of illustrations by Cheryl Gross, drawn to accompany Nicelle Davis’s three ‘In the Circus of You’ poems. Although I would never claim to be an artistic specialist, Gross’s drawings remind me of John Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. This strikes me as particularly apt, for the Bestiary Special of A Cappella Zoo is a strange, eclectic wonderland of prose and poetry, drawing together the real with the imagined and fantastic.

A Capella 10

Weighing in at a hefty 345 pages, A Cappella Zoo is comprised of seven sections, with titles like ‘Crematorium’, ‘Shelter’, ‘Aquarium’. Its editor, Gina Ochsner, sets out the journal’s remit in the introduction – to provide a space where magic realism can be presented as a ‘viable and legitimate form for narrative and image-rich poetry’. In this respect, A Cappella Zoo succeeds; gruesome, zombie-like stories jostle alongside shorter pieces about oddly fragmented families. Some are disturbing, others powerful. A disinterested father disappears into sand at a children’s playground, an elderly grandfather turns into a tree, the body of great-uncle who had been severely wounded during the Second World War falls apart time and time again.

Some pieces in the collection really shine; for example, ‘When The Weather Changes You’ by Amber Sparks. The empty sadness of the great-grandmother, the story’s protagonist, is captured perfectly in the metaphor of ash – decaying inside, the great grandmother is unable to love but urgently longs for the physical heat exerted by her only lover. Sparks portrays the grandmother’s conflicted desires with sensitivity, leaving the reader sympathetic rather than frustrated with her plight. Similarly, the ghoulish intrigue of ‘Three Conrad Poems’ by Kristine Ong Muslim is equally well done. The poems juxtapose the theme of familial love and Frankenstein-esque grotesquery of a zombie family: “I squeezed his hand to make him stop. It crackled./‘Don’t worry,’ I whispered over a mouthful/Of grass, earth, and dark river water. A family recipe./‘I’ll weld the bones later […].’ Such loving grotesquery is repeated later in Randolph Schmidt’s ‘Larva’, where a father imitates his son – in order to understand him – in the eating of insects and wood.

I was also moved by the sad, respectful tone of ‘War Crumbs’ by Joe Kapitan. The great-uncle in this story ‘falls apart’; literally, his body breaking apart at the joints. The disintegration of the self is repeated elsewhere in the collection, as in ‘The Adventures of Star Fish Girl’ by Lindsay Miller. This piece has a distinctly female take on the theme and provides an interesting take on the consumptive nature of relationships – that sense of something being taken by a lover.

Another standout story is ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Julia A. Rosenthal, which portrays the loss of language and its replacement with a number-driven intelligence. It is cleverly done, with Rosenthal skewing the common experience of partners becoming unable to talk to each other. In the parallel world of ‘Trouble in Mind’, this inability to talk occurs to characters following an illness. They become infected with a condition that takes away their vocal abilities and understanding of spoken language, replacing it with a new, number-driven intelligence. The ‘infected’ characters thus communicate with each other through Byrons – machines that translate and transfer the silent speaker’s words. It is an interesting premise and Rosenthal is skilful in her representation of the loneliness created by a decaying language. The only thing that didn’t settle with me in this story was the use of word Byron. To my mind, Byron conjures a sensual, brooding poet, who used language to challenge and provoke. Perhaps calling the translation machines Lovelaces would work – Ada Lovelace was Byron’s daughter, and a pioneer in maths and forerunner of computer algorithms.

I enjoyed and was challenged by this collection. Some poems and stories took me well out of my comfort zone and I applaud the ambition. The Bestiary edition of A Cappella Zoo is a journal to revisit and re-read.

Rebecca Burns is the author of Catching the Barramundi, longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.