When I read a collection of short stories, I look to see whether there is an overriding theme. It’s not essential that there be one, of course, but it can add to the satisfaction, if only because looking for a theme forces me to think a little more about what I’ve been reading. Well, I didn’t have to look too far with this most recent collection, as the title pretty well gives it away. Bearings, by Leah Swann, is a collection of seven short stories and a novella and, as the back cover blurb says, is about “challenging the course of our lives and keeping a foothold during unpredictable times”. That’s a pretty good description and, I must say, it’s appealing, for a change, to have a short story collection whose title is not that of one of the stories within.
Bearings is the fifth book in Affirm Press’s series, Long Story Shorts. (I reviewed the fourth one, Having cried wolf, a few months ago.) It’s a gorgeously produced series. The books are a little more squat than the usual paperback, and each has a cover designed by Dean Gorissen. They are books you want to hold (fondle even) and look at.
Anyhow, on with the show. This is a varied bunch of stories. Some are told in first person, some third, and the first story is told in the less common second person. The subject matter includes broken families, suicide, grief, foster children, and motherhood. That is, all those things that happen in people’s lives to challenge them. However, as the title suggests, the stories are not totally depressing. Sad at times, yes, but not hopeless. They are more about finding ways to survive the challenges.
The stories grew on me. It’s not that I didn’t like them from the start because I did, but I think the writing got surer and more interesting, less predictable, by the end. Whether, of course, they are presented in the order written I have no idea. Probably not, but that’s how it feels. Of the first few stories, I especially liked “All the mothers”, a first person story about a foster child. He starts off as a naive narrator, not quite understanding what is happening as he moves from “mother” to “mother”. Take, for example, Mr Gordon who sometimes gives him an Eskimo Pie “especially if I have a cuddle”. When Mrs Gordon catches him on Mr Gordon’s knee one day, she pulls him off but he’s mystified: “I keep saying I’m okay, but she doesn’t believe me. Or maybe she’s not listening”. Gradually, of course, he becomes less naive and, more angry. It’s a well realised, psychologically real, slice-of-life story.
The central novella, “Silver hands”, is a little predictable. You can see most of it coming before you get there, but it’s nonetheless a good read because the characters are engaging and the language is fresh. I enjoyed descriptions like this:
His laugh goes up and down the scale like a hammer on chimes.
And this one on a woman starting to see signs of aging:
My skin is drying like the pages of a manuscript lettered with childbirth, lovemaking, nicotine and alcohol, and under it all the bones are losing density. But the letters of my true being are not written here. I am not only my body. I’ve never believed that yet here I am mourning it, sucked into that great big lie, measuring myself by flesh more than ever.
This is (obviously) a first person story. The set up is a marriage in the process of breaking down, but it’s more about how experiences in our past can come back to bite us if we don’t properly address them at the time. There are some “mysteries” for the reader to uncover and Swann plots them nicely. An enjoyable read.
My very favourite stories though are the last two, “The Easter Hare” and “The Ringwood Madonna”. Many of Swann’s protagonists are artists – potters, musicians, painters, writers – and this is so in these two stories. “The Ringwood Madonna” is about an artist who is struggling with motherhood, about how she meets a homeless tagger and engages in her own little act of rebellion. She creates a Madonna poster which she pastes like graffiti on a railway cutting wall. It attracts a lot of attention but an art expert says that holy images should not be sprayed around town. However,
Her graffiti Mary was – to her – a beautiful lamp in suburban ugliness. A gift. Subconsciously she’d hoped that by creating Mary she would create beauty inside herself, she could see that now. And she had felt warmth when she was creating. Yes. Even joy.
The story’s conclusion nicely resolves some of the conflicts in her life while also making a comment on art as being not only about expression but communication too.
“The Easter Hare” takes place over Easter (of course) and beautifully reflects on the Easter story of death and redemption through a loose parallel describing a suicide and the response of strangers to it. It’s a finely told tale, and its conclusion brought tears to my eyes.
Swann describes the mother in “The Easter Hare” as wanting to write an Easter story for her children that is not “bloody and harsh” like the Crucifixion story, as wanting, rather, to “create something gentler for them”. This seems also to be what Swann wanted to create for us. She chronicles the challenges, sufferings and miseries of life but, as her title suggests, her worldview is a positive one, one that believes we can all find our “bearings” if we just take the time to look for them. This collection would be a good place to start.
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 5)
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)