Closure is, per its sub-title, a collection of contemporary black British short stories; so I thought I might discuss it beginning with my favourite story and working my way down from there (with the disclaimer that it took me a while to read, because everything takes me a while to read lately, so take that for what it’s worth). I’ll add only this introductory statement:
This collection (by Peepal Tree Press, a UK based publisher invested in classic and contemporary Caribbean fiction and poetry, and edited by Jacob Ross, who also edited my story The Other Daughter over at Adda) is a compelling and unusual collection – compelling in that it, for the most part grips and holds my interest and at points fully immerses me in its otherness, and that otherness is part of its unusualness as these are stories we don’t usually hear, and they’re worth hearing. So, here, they are, completely out of order (warning, I tried but there may be spoilers):
Skinning Up by Jacqueline Crooks placed me in the character’s teen perspective, her thought patterns linked to my own, from the sneaking out to the rubbing up to the long dangerous walk home, I felt my body tense as the danger toward her increased. Part of it was that it’s the kind of danger any woman can relate to, the danger in the night, the sinking feeling that your wits won’t get you out of the situation – there are enough missing girls and women around the world to testify to this – but as the character tries to distract her stalker with her words and wiles we can’t help rooting for her, feeling her tension and desperation as if it were our own. The pressure builds and builds until…oh wait, no spoilers. But well done, Ms. Crooks; also nice interplay of home and the place that’s not quite home, all through the character’s perspective and not just for so but as an integral part of plotting and characterization.
The Draw by Jacqueline Clarke was achingly sad. At first it seems your standard story of an aging couple who’ve grown apart after being too long together – they don’t really communicate, don’t really connect. But as the story flits from his point of view to hers, it becomes clear that one’s perception of their situation is terribly flawed and the other’s hold on time and reality is slipping. It is life’s cruel irony that this crumbling happens just as they hit upon a fortune that could change their lives. It does, but not for the better. If losing yourself is a deeply held fear, then this story will push your buttons because if the building block of a life is in the details what happens to the self when those details begin to erode?
Fred D’Aguiar does a lot of good character work without telling us a lot about the character in A Bad Day for a Good Man in a Hard Job – a story that captures the chaos and non-stop intensity of a high stakes mental ward. The weakest bit for me was the Rasta-speak by one of the characters which felt like it was trying too hard to be Rasta-speak. But I was engaged enough that when the story ended, though it ended at a good dramatic point, I wasn’t ready.
The footnotes embedded within –a part of – Getting Home: a Black Urban Myth (The Proofreader’s Sigh) by Pete Kalu is every person who’s ever had the privilege and torture of editing’s inner snark. It is one of my favourites – laugh out loud funny; funny, and yet… the blocking on the scene with the white woman he doesn’t quite encounter in the street, funny …and yet sad that that’s the way it is. The pile-on of unfortunate events can be taken as farcical – comedy with an edge – but in the world as we know it, it’s not absurd at all (except maybe that final image of the retreating taxi) but all too possible.
Malik’s Door by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi never really shows us its secret; it’s a story that talks around its subject, dropping just enough breadcrumbs to lead the reader and the main protagonist, a Ugandan woman who snags a husband for immigration purposes and doesn’t quite get what she bargained for, to the obvious conclusion. Love the deft hide and seek of this one, smiling sadly at the end at the bitter-bittersweet tone and outcome. One detail that took me out of the story was the mention of a character’s father being from Liberia but going home to Tobago in the Caribbean, the math on that distracted me for a bit since Liberia is in Africa.
The Müllerian Eminence by Leone Ross (shout out to the author on the release of her recent book, also a Peepal Tree publication, Come Let Us Sing Anyway. Wasn’t sure what to make of this at the beginning when hymens started turning up everywhere but reading previous stories of hers like The Woman who lived in a Restaurant had primed me to expect the unexpected); and the unfolding gender politics stirred my interest. The story has an interesting – and somewhat disturbing in its detail – premise, in that through the hymen, the main character (a man) is tortured by insights to the unique suffering of women. Only thing, I had this feeling of wanting the author to explain the ending to me.
The House by Tariq Mehmood is a reminder that this nationalistic fervor for a homogenous society is already a lost cause. Because in a place like Britain, which notably voted for Brexit (i.e. to exit the European Union) this past year, there are already a multiplicity of voices. Among them, in a collection on black British writing, a story of an Indian trying to find her home in Pakistan from before the Partition. The Partition, like Slavery (referring specifically to the period of African enslavement permanently connecting the old world and the new) and the Holocaust, has earned proper noun status for being an event of great horror in the lives of targeted groups of people. The Partition, as I understand it, and I have only recently been reading about it, saw the British-led separation of India from Pakistan along religious lines. This story jumps decades forward from that point to the story of a woman who was a girl at the time of Partition returning to Pakistan, trying to find her home; and the story of her driver who finds more than he expected when he picked up the fare. Stories like this just by telling the stories of real people provide insight to parts of the world only ever reported on at their worst – or if cricket is involved. That these people, in the person of the storyteller (or, I suppose I mean the Pakistan born, British raised author), are now part of the British tapestry is one of the remarkable and yet quite ordinary things about the world we live in today (much as we fight it). Also, this is just an engaging story that guards as much as it reveals.
Here be Monsters by Karen Onojaife is filled with both humour (including some genuine, take you by surprise, laugh out loud moments) and pathos. What’s interesting is the way the latter rides the back of the former like a haunting. Also the structure is very Bridget Jones –ish if Bridget Jones blogged instead of journaling.
The Typewriter by Ayesha Siddiqi had me turning pages anxious to get to the end but left me feeling frustrated once I got there. What did the pages say?! Gripping – haunted object, inherited memory, artist as channel not creator – premise but then leaves me hanging. Grrr. Author does a really good job of threading the needle though.
Works by Desiree Reynolds was an interesting read, so interesting I had to read it twice just to get it. Maybe I’m slow, but the first time it was difficult to catch the levels on which it existed. It was the inner monologue of God as an old, black, fed up and tired Jamaican woman (if her speech, caught in her fits of outburst is anything to go by). This woman is observing her creations in a market, seeing in to their lives but her every careless action is also affecting the world in monumental ways. There’s a weariness to her that hangs over the narrative – a weariness at their bad choices, lack of gratitude, lack of fear, sexism, racism, game playing etc. On another level, it feels like she could just be a fed up woman, period. It works either way.
Streamlining by Muli Amaye is a simmering pressure cooker of a tale that pops its top at the end; though instead of getting burnt, you’ll feel an amazing pop of release and fist pump in solidarity with the main character.
Six Saturdays and Some Version of the Truth by Koye Oyedeji is the story a relationship – or something like it – rendered in revealing (and yet frustratingly incomplete) snippets. Left me wanting more but what I got was intriguing.
Breaking Glass by Louisa Adjoa Parker reminds you that sometimes it takes blood and broken glass to wake us up. If only it were easier. But where humans and hearts are involved it rarely is. A tightly realized window to the shards of a broken relationship from the male perspective. Great sense of the space in which these characters interact, physically and emotionally.
The opening image of Contrary Motion by Monica Ali may have you second guessing yourself – wait, did I just read what I thought I read… yes, yes, you did. Interesting story.
A Cartography of All the Names You’ ve ever given me by Hana Riaz is a story of people trying hard not to be themselves and being reminded that you can’t be anything but.
Day Trippers by Raman Mundair is an effortless read, flipping forward like the frames of a film to only the essential bits, and teasing you to keep watching though you have a good sense, maybe, of where it’s going. Okay, not so predictable after all – the discontent with the status quo was predictable, though not boringly so, but that little surprise at the end was unexpected.
Clickety-Click by Lynne E. Blackwood. Sound. Object. Person. Presence. Come together to create a haunting tale, literally. A quiet tale – almost too quiet – but curiousity may keep you reading and the payoff comes when you figure it out just moments before it’s revealed.
Chocolate Tea by Gaylene Gould – this one will hit close to home for anyone one who’s had to deal with a Caribbean parent or big sibling – maybe of a particular time – who with careless words and actions seem set on breaking the back of their child’s/sibling’s esteem – perhaps they see it as tough love, perhaps they don’t know another way to be, but for sure they would be shocked if you ever tried to talk to them (per modern psychobabble) about their hurtful behaviour, two seconds before calling you thin-skinned. She captured this element well.
Secret Chamber by Akila Richards features three women moving toward the same place but going in different directions. It’s about tough choices, regrets, and the freedom to change your mind. At first I was not a fan of the bouncing around from point of view to point of view especially as the three povs seemed to have nothing to do with each other. And when they first meet that meeting feels forced and it still feels like at least two separate stories. But when their coming together begins to unobtrusively transform their lives, it started to get interesting and suspenseful. Good read overall.
Whatever Lola Wants by Michelle Innis – this one didn’t hook me. Early on, I felt throughout like I’d skipped something in the timeline or like the timeline had skipped. Plus the story itself, the premise, the descriptions, and the vernacular felt cliché. I should’ve known, though, based on the quality of writing in this collection – nothing cliché to see here – because, boy, when this story curves, it curves.
For all the detail in Yoruba Man by Bernadine Evaristo, I found myself having difficulty planting my feet in this story and I wasn’t sure I liked it at all really; but as she moved in to the short hard scrabble life in the British mines and trying to make a life across continents, and in to the span of time down the generations, it really hooked me – the idea of how much knowledge of self is lost the farther away from the source you get. Also it’s interesting to read an African come to England story that had nothing to do with slavery.
An Age of Reason (Coming Here) by Valda Jackson – a study in how people experience the same events differently.
The Weight of Four Tigers by Chantal Oakes. There’s a charm about the custodian character – like when he talks back to the radio as I’ve seen Caribbean people do – that makes me smile. By the end though, if you’re like me, your mouth is kind of hanging open at the unfolding horror, and the callous disregard for life in the name of art. Interesting set up and definitely stirred a reaction but found myself tuning out part that got too technical re the science of the performance art that’s the centerpiece of the story – and couldn’t really picture the contraption that’s kind of an important plot piece.
My Grandmother died with Perfect Teeth by Patricia Lawrence is made of certain truths hidden behind falsehoods that sustain.
Easy on the Rose’s by Dinesh Allirajah – an interesting …tableau…more than a full-fledged story…the bar denizens you only half know but who imprint on you in some way.
From Where I come by Nana-Essi Casely Hayford, an Africa-centric tale, tackles self-rejection and the perils of that. It was okay.
Randall & Sons by Judith Bryan – dystopian, ironic.
Hoover Junior by Seni Seneviratne captures the claustrophobic quality of family.
Can’t say I really get the characters in Sai Murray’s Piss Pals and their literal pissing contest. Young, shallow, vain, and, again, engaging in literal pissing contests. But the story does provide a certain insight, I suppose. Does it do a good job of rendering that particular world? Or is it exaggerated? Hard to tell – it feels a bit like a knock-off of a Trainspotting or a Rocknrolla, not plotwise or even character wise, but through its focus on a certain youthful, amoral, aimless character type, and just the general feel of it. What I did find interesting was the use of irony (and the ways that tipped over in to humour) and the main character’s complete obsession with appearances and complete lack of insight and self-awareness. That was well done, especially when things take a turn in the last third or so of the story.
The way words and imagery move in Amber Light by Sylvia Dickenson, at least to begin, is fast and disorienting, perhaps meant to mirror the scene it describes (?) Maybe it’s the pacing but as a reader I found it difficult to find the centre of the story or to care about what was happening.
Overall though I did care about was happening in the book; good collection – worth checking out and, as should be obvious by now, doesn’t deal with the expected themes (race, migration, dislocation) or when it does touch on them (inevitable perhaps given that authors are first, second, maybe third generation Brits from places with a complicated history with Empire) doesn’t do so in familiar ways.