Eeek! If you ever doubted Gert’s literary judgment, here’s resounding confirmation of your doubts. Kirsty Gunn has won the 2015 Edge Hill Short Story Prize for Infidelities. No slight intended to Kirsty Gunn; in fact hearty congratulations on this very significant recognition of her work. But it’s back to lit crit school for Gert, as the following review of 3 of the shortlisted books, written before the announcement, proves.
Toby Litt Life-Like Seagull Books 2014
‘Life-Like is a book about our globalizing and atomizing world,” says the blurb. And it’s true that the 26 interconnected stories take place in a variety of places: England, India, Poland, Australia, America, Sweden, and what they have in common is the theme of people’s paths crossing and diverging, life as a web of transitory but inerconnected transactions. What’s strange is that the world Litt creates is such an indoor world. Everything happens in people’s heads. Or perhaps that’s not so strange, thinking of that word ‘atomizing’. All the characters are profoundly alone in their own heads, even those in relationships or in families. The only untouched characters are children, like Paddy and Henry’s son Max.
The book begins and ends with Paddy and Agatha, a couple whose marriage is in a lot of trouble. The stories in between follow the links Paddy and Agatha make with others – Paddy almost has a one-night stand with Kavita, Agatha does have one with John – and the links those others make. Kavita’s breast surgeon reappears in a later story presented as a film script, the naked black man John sees in his garden reappears as a fell-walking guide to an elderly Jewish man, the girl Agatha remembers kissing when she was fifteen suddenly sends her an email, Paddy and Agatha’s Polish au pair Veronkia turns up working in a bar in Australia. One story is the twitter feed of Veronika’s sister. You get the idea. Even the chapter listing is a kind of network, with chapters named for the people in them:
Paddy & Henry
Paddy & Veronika
Veronika & Alice
Alice & Ric
I was impressed, entertained and annoyed in equal parts by Life-Like. Litt uses dialogue cleanly and tellingly, like a good film script, and in fact his bright, cutting style does remind me of a film script – with a lot of use of voice-over.
KIrsty Gunn Infidelities Faber & Faber, 2014)
You could hardly find a writer less like Litt than Kirsty Gunn, who wears her heart very much on her sleeve. She was born in New Zealand and she reminds me a little of the early Katherine Mansfield. Here’s the opening of the title story:
The morning, when she stepped out into it, felt new-minted, as though everything the day would need had been printed fresh.
Reminiscent of Mansfield, too, is her theme of the wild ravenous feeling inside her that nothing was enough, nothing (The Wolf on the Road), and her attentiveness to the membrane of feeling and emotion between each of us and the world. But Gunn is gentler and more plaintive than Mansfield, and it’s that plaintive tone, as well as the narrow range of her themes, that gives a sameness to the stories. Many of them are told in the voice of a woman contemplating leaving, or having left, a marriage. Two of them tell of an encounter with a wild creature that changes the direction of the woman’s life. All deal with the undertow of time, tugging us through life without our realising how fast we’re going.
The opening piece, which is both a story and a framing of the collection, has the author and a former lover drinking in a bar. It ends:
‘I’m glad we’ve gone out,’ he said after I’d finished. ‘Let’s stay out. Who knows. Maybe we’ll never go home, you and I. Maybe we’ll just say we’re never coming home again.’
The stories are then organised into three sections called Going Out, Staying Out, and Never Coming Home. For me, there was something too neat about this arrangement. The book, says the blurb, asks ‘What if?’- and dares to find out. I didn’t find much daring here. For all the polish and the poetic qualities of her writing, I didn’t find the book as a whole compelling. I’ve heard good things about Gunn’s novel The Big Music, so I think I’ll read that before I come to a judgment about her.
Rose Tremain, The American Lover (Chatto & Windus, 2014).
In contrast to the limited range of voices in Gunn, Rose Tremain has a multiplicity: a lonely man running a dog shelter, a girl whose life was ruined by a disastrous love affair, the stationmaster of the station where Tolstoy, in flight from his wife, died, ‘Mrs Danvers’ from Rebecca, a widowed fisherman, an elderly American couple who run away from home, a widowed mother seeing her only child off to boarding school, an 80-year-old man with a mission to keep a particular country lane clear of rubbish, a ‘21st century Juliet’, a schoolgirl who decides to fall in love with a female teacher.
I’m not discovering the story and then writing it down. No. From the beginning, I was there…I’m in the midst,’ Kirsty Gunn’s narrator said at the beginning of her collection. By contrast, Rose Tremain is nowhere to be found in her stories, unless it is in the grace that informs them. They are not all equally successful: Extra Geography and BlackBerry Winter, both very short, lack the bite and finish that a very short story needs, whereas the single-focus Captive and Smithy are gems. Another standout is Man in the Water. But my favourite was The Jester of Asapovo:
A few weeks before the main events of this story disturbed forever the life of its protagonist, Ivan Andreyevich Ozolin, he had believed himself to be in love with an older woman, Tanya Trepova.
Immediately the scene is set for a story that is both homage to, and sport with, Chekhov and Tolstoy. Describing the bizarre events surrounding the death of Tolstoy in a railwayman’s house, Tremain creates exactly the atmosphere of mild insanity and doomed introspection we find in them:
‘Dimitri,’ he said,‘how on earth are we meant to escape from the meaninglessness of life? Tell me your method.’
‘My method?” said Dimitri. ’What method? I’m just a telegraph operator. I send out messages and get messages back.’
‘At least you’re in touch with the wider world.’
I may be in touch with the wider world, but I don’t have any message of my own. Life has not…life has not…equipped me with one.’
‘Equipped you? Have another drink, my friend. I think we’re both talking drivel, but it seems to me there are three ways, and only three, of escaping it.’
In Tremain, it is the events of the story that constantly reposition the reader, not the characters’ reflections on their own emotions or on the significance of events. You feel your point of view changing, your understanding enlarging, it seems organically.
I haven’t had the chance to read the other 3 on the short list (Anneliese Mackintosh, Carys Davies and Madeleine D’Arcy), and I’m writing this before the announcement of the winner. From the three I’ve read, I’d guess the young gun Toby Litt might win, though it’s clear Tremain is my favourite.