In an attempt to keep to my word, I’ve started to pick my way through the towering to be read pile that’s taken over the space beneath my bed. We’re not going to mention the two books that accidentally fell into my bag at a charity shop last week- that didn’t happen. The first books I’ve chosen are short story collections I bought at Waterstones during a university trip. Yes, my Masters course took a trip to Waterstones as a lecture and it was magical. The reason I chose them was because they felt like they had something in common with my own writing and as they are the first collection by each writer, I thought I might pick up a few things.
Both collections are routed in place. Lucy Caldwell’s stories take place on the streets of Belfast while Thomas Morris depicts small town life in Caerphilly but both these places have well established identities and the characters in the collections face difficulties when they don’t fit the mould.
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell
The first stories in this collection were nostalgic for me. She perfectly captures the experience of school children in the 90s and early 00s right down to the Juicy Fruit chewing gum and the illicit trip to Woolworths. I empathised with the narrator of Thirteen. Teenagers can be hard on themselves but they are worse to each other. The narrator of Thirteen is already on the outskirts of her year group. She’s been excluded by them because of her association with her best friend, and when her best friend moves away she finds it hard to integrate and part of her doesn’t want to. The toxicity of rumours, the pressure to be sexually experienced and boys fumigated with Lynx are all things we have had to endure as teenagers.
Poison touches on the same themes but focuses on teenage obsession, when a crush is taken to the extreme. The narrator’s infatuation with her Spanish teacher has more to do with impressing her friends and causing scandal than it does with any real attraction. She’s chasing scandal, desperate to become the next school legend, without realising the consequences of her pursuit.
Through The Wardrobe was a highlight for me. Caldwell uses second person intermittently throughout the collection and as someone usually adverse to it, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the stories. In Through The Wardrobe, second person allows the reader to inhabit the mind of a transgender child and their struggle to conform to a gender they don’t identify with. The scene in the Disney store is heart-wrenching.
The last two stories in the collection – Inextinguishable and Multitudes– felt apart from the rest of the collection initially but in putting together my thoughts for the review I realised there was a flow from A to B, from childhood to adulthood and through to motherhood.
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris
I can’t remember the last book I read by a Welsh author. I’m not sure I can say confidently I ever have, which is outrageous because there’s so much talent in our little corner of the world if Thomas Morris’ debut collection is anything to go by. Although set in Caerphilly, the stories reminded me of my hometown in South West Wales and the people that live there. It doesn’t matter the size of the place- everyone knows everyone to some degree and that’s not always a good thing.
The opening story Bolt hints at what the collection’s title confesses: the people in these stories don’t know what they’re doing but they’re muddling through anyway. The narrator is an outsider, having moved to Caerphilly to be with his university girlfriend. But they’ve broken up and while she’s moved to London he still lives at her mother’s. His reluctance to move out is rooted in his unwillingness to let go of their relationship. He harasses her with texts and phone calls, taunting her with an ill-advised affair he initiates with her old therapist. All his actions are a cry for her attention but she is unwilling to give it. The town and the house become his limbo but when the rental store he works at shuts down he’s forced to acknowledge this. Reading this story, it’s easy to see how you can be lulled into the rhythms of a small town and the role that you establish within it- finding your way out can be hard especially if you don’t want to.
In Fugue the narrator feels disconnected from her home after returning to Caerphilly for the Christmas holidays. It’s a feeling most people can relate to. It’s the realisation that things happen when you’re not around, that you drift from the people you grew up with, that your childhood home has its own smell you never noticed before and that things have changed but it’s taken coming home to see it. Maybe you’re the one who’s changed, not the place at all. Some details felt eerily relatable, down to the dad in the Berghaus fleece. Do all dad’s wear Berghaus fleeces?
All The Boys and 17 are stories where vulnerability is covered up by male bravado. The narrator of 17 has planned a camping trip with his friends and initiates wrestling matches with women to hide that his break up bothers him and in All The Boys, Gareth overcompensates for his feelings by being overly ‘laddie’ at his cousin’s stag do.
The final story Nos Da is distinct from the others. In English, the title means ‘goodnight’. It’s something my grandfather used to say when he tucked me into bed whenever he came to visit- except I used to think he was saying ‘north star’. Saying ‘nos da’ means a little bit more meaning and feeling behind it than saying ‘goodnight’. Its saying goodnight to someone your care about, and as a title for this story, it’s fitting. The sense that there is something not quite right about the town and its residents builds slowly through the narrative until the reality of the situation is revealed. I would have read an entire novel based on the concept of this story.
Reading Welsh dialogue was a pleasure for me- the syntax of the sentences, the colloquialisms, the sassy elderly ladies. It felt similar to the sensation you get when walking down a road anywhere outside of Wales and recognising a Welsh accent- that inherent sense of national pride you just can’t shake.
Familiar places appear again and again: Cardiff Road, Caerphilly castles, the snack bar, the seagulls in the moat. Even characters reappear in different reincarnations- Gareth, Rob, Larry and Bryn. Like Dubliners, it felt as it the characters were suffering from the paralysis that comes from living somewhere with a distinct identity but also from the limitations forced upon themselves. Caerphilly is both purgatory and limbo and by recasting characters and places Morris intensifies that sense of claustrophobia but also presents the characters with a chance to break free.