Lucy Wood’s collection of short stories, Diving Belles, was much praised, and with Weathering she has produced an episode of The Archers as Gabriel García Márquez might have written it. Ada and her six-year-old daughter, Pepper, return to the rural home Ada has inherited from her mother, Pearl. As a teenager Ada couldn’t wait to leave and now she intends to stay only until she can sell the house on.
Pearl, incidentally, still haunts it; her presence is tolerated with benign irritation. She is diffuse – able to relate the distant movements of herons and kingfishers – but also immanent and not a little cranky: she keeps a scrunched-up tissue in her sleeve and tuts at her family’s domestic misadventures. It is how I imagine my mother’s ghost will behave. This is of a piece with a book in which the lyrical descriptions of place and weather are always entwined with affectionate but sceptical attention to character and to life’s minutiae. As Ada is drawn into rural life, her observation that ‘under the pub’s lamp, the world glinted’ seems typical.
Wood isn’t above an easy laugh, as when Pepper is discussing important matters with her friend Petey – ‘Pepper sighed and tipped herself backwards on the swing. Five was too young to understand.’ But she also takes Pepper seriously, placing her perspective alongside her mother’s and grandmother’s, much as Penelope Fitzgerald used to, so that their insights or oversights are given equal weight. In doing so she builds a portrait of a family that is at once affecting and very entertaining.
The protagonist of Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing is also haunted by a loved one. Years ago, Elyria’s sister, Ruby, committed suicide by throwing herself from a window. Ruby is present for Elyria as a handful of memories, and as what she calls her internal ‘wildebeest’, a fatalistic desire to trample over life and out of it.
This wildebeest seems to have won. Elyria leaves her husband in New York and flies to New Zealand. Here, she hitches lifts from strangers, struggles to respond to small kindnesses and has no real plan for what she will do next. The writing is pellucid. Elyria’s thoughts flow with easy grace, in long, run-on sentences, revealing troubled eddies with compelling clarity and a perfect ear. A riff on people watching the ocean concludes:
What they are looking at is just the blue curtain over a wild violence, lives eating lives, the unstoppable chew, and I wondered if any of those vacationing people feel all the blood rushing under the surface, and I wondered if the fleshy, dying underside of the ocean is what they’re really after as they stare – that ferocious pulse under all things placid.
Elyria is an apt name for a bereaved sister landed on strange shores, and she shares some of the bemused wit of Shakespeare’s Viola. This felicitous eye for the absurd encourages you to hope that Elyria might find some way of escaping her grief. Just before the paragraph above, a barmaid on the ferry gives her a free drink and Elyria observes that she will ‘go on loving her for the rest of my life’. It is the way her wildebeest keeps pulling Elyria back into the ferocious undertow, reminding us how even this joke seems bleakly provisional, that makes this very fine debut so moving as well as so delightful.
Alby, the narrator of Matt Sumell’s gloriously funny Making Nice, has a similarly destructive but more demonstrative reaction to grief. He promises his mother on her death bed that he won’t ‘abuse ladies’. Outside, his sister says she recognises that tendency in him. ‘I told her to shut the fuck up.’
Making Nice is a series of short stories, constellated around Alby’s mother’s death. We see his difficult teenage years in New York State, for instance, and later his desultory attempts to pick up women while working at a marina in Los Angeles. The pathos comes from Alby’s desperate attempts to be a good person in spite of his violent, alcoholic tendencies. He writes off a car, injuring a neighbour – his brother says they have to go back to help her and Alby ‘knew almost immediately that he was right’. His charm is held in the use of that word ‘almost’. The apologetic apostrophe to his mother’s grave, late in the book, is unnecessary; it makes explicit what has been powerfully implicit: that Alby is an ass, who knows he is an ass, and tries not to be an ass, but is still, triumphantly, an ass.
Another American author, Miranda July, already has a bestselling short-story collection to her name. The First Bad Man, however, is perhaps the most fitful of these debuts. Its narrator, middle-aged Cheryl, is equal parts delusion and neurosis. She fantasises about an older man, a self-righteous ephebophile called Phillip, and has a tightening in her throat she calls her ‘globus’. The arrival of her boss’s daughter, Clee, as a lodger, and their ‘immensely satisfying adult game’, which involves Clee attacking Cheryl, enables her to achieve real emotional fulfilment and finally to seal her bond with a transmigrating baby’s soul called Kubelko Bondy.
These conceits build up so that you worry there is a point you are missing, which is a shame, because the central story is touching, and July’s archness can go both ways: she has a lovely, relaxed satirical sense. Cheryl’s boss, trying to introduce Japanese customs to the office, presents her with her own wallet:
‘I wasn’t really giving you a present – I was just trying to show the culture. The gift would be a set of little sake cups or something.’
‘You went into my purse and got this?’
A good joke, of course, is a feat of condensation, as is a good short story, whereas a novel is better thought of as an act of distillation: all told, The First Bad Man might have been more carefully distilled.