Vector review: Two Year’s Bests

(This review appears in issue 280 (Summer 2015) of Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA.)

Steve Haynes (ed.), The Best British Fantasy 2014
Laird Barron and Michael Kelly (eds.), Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One (2014)

A review of this nature should set out its stall, so here goes: I believe that, in a fantasy story – especially one worthy of the ‘best of’ label – the fantasy should be intrinsic to what the story is doing. I also want it to be earning its keep; I don’t want stories that feel as though they’re trying to gain effect by appealing to a sense of nostalgia or fondness for a particular idea. Hopefully this will give you a sense of where I’m coming from as I look at these two Year’s Best anthologies.

BBFLet’s turn first to Salt’s Best British Fantasy 2014 (whose remit incorporates science fiction). Some of its fourteen stories are decent enough but lacking that extra spark. ‘Cat World’ by Georgina Bruce tells of two sisters who live on the streets, their only escape being the odd stick of Doctor Rain’s Travel Gum, which takes them away to the titular, friendlier place. But, when one sister goes missing, the other finds the world more dangerous than ever. Bruce’s story is reflective of pressing real-life concerns; and the convincingly child-like narrative voice does work. The problem is that the fantasy elements are scarcely necessary, and ‘Cat World’ reads much like many a familiar literary realist story along similar lines. Likewise, Carole Johnston’s ‘Ad Astra’ sees a couple’s relationship tested when they go into space; it’s okay, but ultimately there’s no need for the story to be set in space.

Still, better this approach than that taken by David Turnbull’s ‘Aspects of Aries’, a series of snapshots from a future where social divisions have formed along astrological lines. It doesn’t convince either as something that might actually happen or as a sandbox future for satire. Turnbull’s story seems mostly geared towards delivering the weak (and pretty distasteful) pun in its last line. I read stories like these three and think: fantasy and SF can do so much more than mimic the strategies of polite realist fiction and facilitate bad jokes.

Thankfully, there are some pieces in the anthology which do show some of fantasy’s potential. ‘Saga’s Children’ by E.J. Swift is narrated collectively by the children of Saga Wärmedal, a celebrated space adventurer whom they never knew and who called them all together to meet her on Ceres. Swift captures the sense of her characters living in their mother’s impossibly long shadow, their lives manipulated by forces beyond their comprehension. ‘Saga’s Children’ works most of all because its grand gestures mirror its larger-than-life canvas.

Elsewhere, ‘Zero Hours’, Tim Maughan’s tale of young people bidding online to undertake zero-hour contracts, eschews metaphor, ending up as the story that feels most engaged with present and future. The protagonist of Nina Allan’s ‘Higher Up’ grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and now has premonitions of a similar event involving her pilot husband; the fragmented structure blurs reality and fantasy to cutting effect. I’m glad to see stories like these in The Best British Fantasy 2014 and they make the anthology worth reading; I just wish there were more of them.

YBWF

Now to the first Year’s Best Weird Fiction, whose rotating editorship promises an ever-shifting view of a field which, inaugural editor Laird Barron’s introduction acknowledges, can be “nebulous.”  There are twenty-two stories here, with a variety of approaches – and varying degrees of success. ‘The Nineteenth Step’ by Simon Strantzas begins promisingly, as a couple move into a dilapidated house whose staircase appears to have an extra, invisible, step. But the story ends just this side of ‘it was all a dream’; and the glimpse of a hidden world isn’t enough to earn that.

Anna Taborska’s ‘The Girl in the Blue Coat’ takes us to Poland, where the spirit of a young girl may have lived on beyond the horrors of the Nazi occupation. There’s scope here for an eerie experience of doubt: the core tale is told at several layers of remove, through the sceptical eyes of journalists and other researchers. But the sense of possibility never quite comes to life.

In ‘Moonstruck’ by Karin Tidbeck, young Alia’s mother Vera is consumed with a fascination for astronomy, so much so that her skin becomes patterned with grey patches of what she insists is regolith. When the moon begins to move towards the Earth, Vera’s condition only grows more acute; meanwhile, Alia is going through her own transformation, as she has her first period. Tidbeck creates a striking parallel between mother, daughter and moon, but still leaves space for a strangeness greater than the three.

Many of the stories reference older writers and forms, sometimes with a sense of leaning too heavily on them for effect but on other occasions able to build on those foundations. Scott Nicolay’s ‘Eyes Exchange Bank’ has characters discussing Poe, and its own share of amorphous figures and sinister buildings – but there’s a rawness to the telling which aligns that iconography with the contemporary setting of a small town beset by economic hardship, to which the protagonist has returned. In ‘Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?’, Damien Angelica Walters takes the obsession of a classic weird fiction narrator and transfers it to a bereaved character who could not let their partner go, creating an effective portrait of someone struggling to move on.

I couldn’t help but wonder on finishing this anthology: what would a 21st Century weird fiction, built from the ground up, be like? I’m not sure that I really saw it here, and perhaps it is the wrong question to ask; perhaps riffing off the past is simply in the nature of weird fiction. Future volumes of Year’s Best Weird Fiction will help to answer that; for now – despite my reservations – there are some stories here which are worth exploring.

Nell Leyshon, Memoirs of a Dipper (2015)

Dipper

In that minute when you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be, when your fingers are touching someone else’s stuff, when you know a key could go in the lock, a door be opened, a footstep come into the room, in that minute you feel it all over your body. You’re alive. The hairs on the inside of your nose are raised. Your ears are moving to help detect any sound. Bits of your body you didn’t know existed are switched on.

– from Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010/5)

MildewIncreasingly, I find that the novels I respond to most strongly are those that create their own seamless reality. I’m not talking here about the meticulous re-creation of a historical period, nor the ‘world-building’ of genre fantasy and science fiction, but something that seems to me more fundamental. I mean those times when the language of fiction unites with its subject: then, there’s nothing between me and the work – and I don’t know how far it might reach.

Here, for example, is Mildew, a short novel by the Mexican writer Paulette Jonguitud (translated by the author from her Spanish original, and now published by the ever-excellent CB Editions). It’s a novel that creeps through you, rather like the mildew which begins growing on its narrator Constanza’s body the day before her daughter’s wedding. I didn’t realise until I started thinking back on the novel just how much it had infected my thoughts. Similarly, when Constanza sees the first spot of mildew, it seems a relatively minor inconvenience:

I don’t like surprises and since the last one had been an affair between my husband and my niece, I was not feeling in the mood for another one (pp. 4-5).

Immediately this remark implies an equivalence between the physical changes that Constanza is experiencing and the events of her life. There’s still more conflation when she describes coming across her husband and niece (also named Constanza):

It was after ten that night. I walked in silence through the dining room. I assumed everyone was upstairs. And then I found Felipe and Constanza sitting at the table, their heads close together as though they were sharing a secret, a bottle of wine between them. I did not need to see much more. Those few seconds were enough for me to know that I didn’t belong there. The furniture seemed to know I was there and feel ashamed, I heard the table creak and saw the chairs wanting to tip over to one side. The edge of the wine glasses, my glasses, seemed to shrink when touched by those lips (p. 12).

This paragraph brings in memory, the physical space of Constanza’s house, and (perhaps faulty, but who’s to say?) perception. Mildew’s narrator ranges far and wide through past and present, all without leaving the house – but there’s something claustrophobic about the experience of reading all this range. Maybe it’s the knowledge of how precarious it all is: Constanza makes no secret of how fallible her memory can be; there’s plenty that she doesn’t know, for example about her niece as a person; then there are her visions, such as the mirrors that reflect old memories and occasionally talk back.

There’s no room here for the safely real to end and the imaginary to begin; this is what we feel too as we read Mildew, and start to wonder what sort of grip Constanza has on her own space, her own story. And we might wonder that with dread, because we sense that, when Constanza’s grip loosens, ours can only do likewise.

Fiction Uncovered 2015

Last Thursday, the winners of this year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize were announced:

  • The Incarnations by Susan Barker (Doubleday)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Significance by Jo Mazelis (Seren)
  • The Offering by Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Mother Island by Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate)
  • Mobile Library by David Whitehouse (Picador)

It’s an interesting selection: I’ve reviewed a couple (linked above) and will be checking out a few others.

In addition, the Fiction Uncovered website is again hosting a series of articles by guest editors (like the columns I wrote last year). Naomi from The Writes of  Woman was this year’s first guest editor; currently it’s Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words. Go and have a look.

 

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall (2012/5)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKThe Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.

The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.

Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been.

The Mountain and the Wall is published by Deep Vellum.

Reflections: a fan of the outliers

I’ve always felt fairly uneasy about the idea of being a ‘fan’ of any given author or series, because I’ve never really had (what seems to me) the typical fan’s relationship with the fiction I read or watch. Even when I was deep in collecting the volumes of long series like Discworld and Fighting Fantasy, I appreciated idiosyncracies and irregularities, the value of allowing writers to go where their imaginations took them. When I encountered other fans’ opinions, the common consensus seemed to be that the closer a given book was to the series/genre norm, the better; whereas the outliers were what most intrigued me.

Over the last 10-15 years, the fields of science fiction and fantasy have become much slicker when it comes to managing series; the trend has been towards valuing plot continuity, ‘world-building’ and high-concept combinations of ‘tropes’. Those, I’ve come to see, are not really my sort of thing, which is one reason I’ve drifted away from reading a lot of genre SF and fantasy in recent years. The work I find myself most drawn to is singular and often self-contained, and I still find myself liking aspects of work that many others seem not to (so, for example, I love The Luminaries for its four-dimensional living metaphors; and I don’t really care much either way about its plot, pastiche or astrology, which seem to get most of the attention). Ultimately, when it comes to matters such as world-building and series continuity, I am more in tune with the project of Viriconium, and I have to proceed from there.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Emma Jane Unsworth, Animals (2014)

AnimalsEmma Jane Unsworth’s second novel starts as it means to go on: Laura wakes up after a big night out, bangle and tights caught around her friend (housemate, landlord) Tyler’s bed, in need of something for her hangover. Tyler is twenty-nine, Laura a few years older; they became friends nine years ago, they still live in Manchester, and this is pretty much how they mean to go on, too. Well, maybe: Laura is shortly to marry Jim, a concert pianist who’s much more strait-laced – could this fracture the friendship that has defined Laura’s adult life?

The experience of reading Animals is quite a headrush: Laura’s first-person narration is snappy but dense, drily self-aware but not removed. The reader is drawn into Laura’s world, with the Technicolor intensity of her friendship with Tyler, but also with a melancholy awareness that the sense of boundless possibility that emerged in the wake of university has now faded. Perhaps one thing that drew Laura to Jim is that he rekindled that sense of possibility:

You could be anything. You could be perfect (unlikely, but the freedom of having the whole rainbow of potential flaws in the running is not to be underestimated). He doesn’t know yet about your limited geographical knowledge; that you don’t read the papers every day; that you sometimes hide instead of answering the door (and the phone). You are yet to drink white wine and turn into a complete fucking lunatic over absolutely nothing. You are yet to, yet to, yet to.

(Canongate pb, 2015, p. 48)

There you have the rush of Unsworth’s language, which never allows Laura’s life to settle into clear certainty: is she marrying Jim because she truly loves him, or because it’s the thing she ‘should’ do? There’s a similar question to be asked about her and Tyler; the journey to reach the answers is a kaleidoscope of neat observations and the flood of experiencing life.