Books of short stories often lurk in a curious creative space, their authors torn between experimentation and coherence. Kate Clanchy thrives in this space, filling The Not-Dead and The Saved and Other Stories with stories of admirable scope and ambition. Clanchy is better known as a poet, and this new volume strikes a charming balance between focus on character and the controlled, potent use of language. ‘The child’s freckles stick out as they always do after swimming: a frequency graph; cells on a Petri dish, swarming’, she writes in ‘Aunt Mirrie and the Child’, a taut piece in which Mirrie takes her great-niece swimming and reflects on the deaths their family has suffered. In ‘Bride Hill’ a woman fears her husband is succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Clanchy loosens the reins: ‘Ahead of me, Jeff and Jennifer are … leaping from path to path, recklessly, flinging up their arms. Their laughter is thin ribbons.’
Clanchy’s prime concerns are relations and relationships. ‘The Invention of Scotland’ charts a teenager’s fascination with a schoolfriend’s classy mother in the 1970s. Most striking is ‘Black Bun’, in which Archie prepares to hold a Hogmanay party and fears his cousin Ruairi will cause trouble. He frets about his new brogues: ‘They were stiff and brown and fiddly and smelt in their depths of shit.’ It’s a ghastly premonition, because Archie checks on his senile mother and discovers excrement liberally distributed about her room. ‘He could see the bathroom was covered with shit too, it was just disguised, because of the direction of the directional spot, and because the suite was olive.’ Archie is pompous and insecure; Clanchy captures beautifully how he bows under the weight of his responsibilities, surviving by focusing on trivialities. The best of the stories here play assuredly between the wild and the measured.
There is something very measured indeed about Jack Livings’s The Dog: Stories. ‘These are his stories of modern China’, the proof copy declares; the prose in fact often resembles reportage. The Dog’s greatest strengths are the collection’s quiet certainty and growing intensity. In ‘Donate!’ a rich man struggles with his responsibilities to his community in the wake of an earthquake. He gives blood and money – both personally and from his business – but ‘No donation was enough’. ‘An Event at Horizon Trading Company’ describes the commotion caused when one employee starts trying to convince the others to adopt traditional Hanfu dress. Troublemakers instead dress in ‘old-style red star liberation caps’ and ‘identical olive-green Zhongshan suits with brown belts, like it was 1967’. The office forms into rival factions; a revolution in miniature brews.
Even more remarkable is ‘The Crystal Sarcophagus’. It’s here that Livings’s project is at its most compelling. This story is factual, stirring and even heartbreaking, as Zhou Yuqing struggles to create a suitable coffin for Mao Zedong: ‘earthquake resistant to magnitude 8.0, glare-proof, airtight, and, most important, the crystal was to be pure to 99.9999 percent – six nines to be confirmed by atomic spectography’. The story is packed with scientific details and individuals driven to despair as they struggle to complete a seemingly impossible task; the tone is controlled, laced with looming disaster. Zhou suffers personal tragedy but buries it for the sake of the project; the conclusion, an outburst of emotion, is magnificent. In Zhou Livings reveals the heart of China.
Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This at Home shows a writer confident in her imaginative ability. The title story plays on the divided lives we lead with a simple device: a woman is able to duplicate her boyfriend by cutting him in half. It’s such an easy process, she continues to do it, as different aspects of his character are embodied in subsequent versions: ‘I diced my husband into pieces eventually. I never thought it would come to that; he was always too much.’ Readman has a penchant for taking the metaphorical and rendering it actual. In ‘Conceptual’ a family lives in a sort of performance-art hell. In ‘There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop’ the titular woman coifs her hair like Elvis and is imbued with certain other legendary qualities of his. That story explores the power assuming a new identity can afford, even if only for a moment, for unlocking one’s sexuality. ‘Some lasses hovered at the counter, smiling at Elvis … An Elvis pelvis rocked to sizzling fat like music.’
There are odder experiments here. ‘Shine On’ and ‘Boys Like Dolls’ are well conceived but their execution is unconvincing. Readman also dabbles with fairy tale and the grotesque – one cannot avoid comparison with Angela Carter, not always favourable. The strongest story is ‘Surviving Sainthood’, about a young girl in a coma who starts to be revered as a conduit for miracles. It’s how that affects her brother, who shades into invisibility, that is impressive. There’s a growing sense that it is he who is the truly religious vessel: ‘I’ve never cut myself to see why I’m bleeding’, he remarks. ‘Not that I know of. I’m a sleepscratcher, or some such shit.’ It’s a very effective blend of the mundane and the fantastical.
There is almost nothing fantastical in Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. These ten stories are grounded and utterly glorious. For the most part they are set in Caerphilly, where Morris grew up; reading them, one gets an alternative tour of the place, with scenes coloured by affection, memory and distance. The book opens with ‘Bolt’, which describes the closure of a video rental store, prompting one of its young employees to go home with an older woman, a psychologist. One thing leads to another. ‘Not really knowing what I’m doing, I awkwardly slap her on the bum. She groans, and I can tell the groan is exaggerated, deliberately encouraging. And there’s something about her encouragement that I find off-putting.’ His reactions feel so honest, one is tempted to assume that the story is autobiographical. Yet ‘Bolt’ is followed by ‘Castle View’, about a youthful schoolteacher. The story is lavishly detailed, a litany of routine that is strikingly vivid: ‘He goes to the kitchen to make himself a drink. The house is quiet, just the sound of the kettle gearing … The fridge hums, like a laptop waking up from idle.’ He gorges on food and hates himself, stays up late and cannot explain to himself why. The peaks and troughs of adjusting to nominally adult life are achingly well observed.
Morris is the editor of The Stinging Fly, a Dublin-based magazine of new writing. He’s no stranger to the well-crafted line and it’s cheering to see that he can turn his editorial skill to his own work. ‘How Sad, How Lovely’ is another story of youthful dislocation, this time about an unemployed man who falls for his neighbour. ‘Fugue’ describes a woman returning to Caerphilly at Christmas time: ‘The house is so small that everyone can hear everything everyone is doing at every moment – especially bathroom noises. So, at 12am, when you need to be sick from the wine, you go out into the street. You hope to throw up into the bushes at the bottom of the road. But you only make it as far as the postbox.’ The use of the second-person there doesn’t feel overworked; neither does the perspectival shifts in ‘all the boys’. The lower case is deliberate, the title serving as an almost comic refrain throughout the story, in which some lads go to Dublin for a stag do and celebrate their Welshness. The stories stretch and strive within the confines of Morris’s Caerphilly; they are distinct but all of a piece, delights to savour.