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Book review: Lipstick Eyebrows edited by Mari Ellis Dunning and Rebecca Parfitt

10 Feb 2024 5 minute read
Lipstick Eyebrows is edited by Mari Ellis Dunning and Rebecca Parfitt and published by Honno

Sarah Tanburn

The latest volume from Honno showcases nine short stories by women writers of Wales. The collection is edited by Mari Ellis Dunning and Rebecca Parfitt who also provide a useful introduction.

As they say, the range of tales illustrate ‘how varied and vast the experience of Wales women truly are today.’ Indeed, there are stories connected to Cymru from Poland, Serbia, England and Nigeria as well as the more familiar valleys and shores of home.

Not all the writers currently live in Wales. By definition, Honno expects all its contributors to live or originally come from here.

Thus Kate Waddon, living in Penzance, describes herself as ‘unshakeably Welsh’ and gives us a story set in a service station on the long drive back.

By contrast Chinyere Chukwudi-Okeh is a recent Swansea graduate, herself a reviewer and essayist for Nation.Cymru and published in Nigeria; she tells a sad tale of a woman travelling from Lagos to Cardiff.

As these examples suggest, many of these stories involved movement toward or around Wales, in life or in memory. The collection revolves around both the reality of Wales and its place in the imagination.

We encounter a country of ‘rock, sand, sea, rock, sky…ever changing under the power of the waves that move the land,’ as Naomi Paulus describes it. It is also the mysterious, meticulously described home of the King of the Fairies and the beetles’ roads in beech trees.

Not all of course are set here; whether on cruise ships or dislocated, unknown hay ricks, a story-teller of Wales is not constrained to write only about the place.

Trust

Trust is a feature of these stories: who to trust, who to believe and how trust changes over time. Will Evelyn trust Gio? Can Caryl accept her sister-in-law’s concern as the old wounds of the strike are recalled? Kasia, ‘surprised at the ease with which grassing up came to me,’ shows herself as untrustworthy as the friends who assaulted and abandoned her, and who is to say she is in the wrong.

And there are those strangers to whom we wish to extend kindness, or at least respect. For Uba’s wife such generosity of spirit ends badly, but she is still glad of her husband’s willingness to help.

Love and loss are also present, sometimes larded with unexpected humour. The narrator of the title story reflects on its twists as she rides the Gower lanes in the dark to visit her elderly grandmother.

‘Death,’ she tells us, ‘like sex, isn’t like it is in the movies. For one thing there has been much more foreplay.’

Carolyn Thomas gives those painted parts of a woman’s face a subversive, caring twist. Nan, who swam with her ‘head staying motionless above the surface like a swan in drag,’ is dying. The family gathered around her are a tight, beautiful web of connection, which might be anywhere and yet is defiantly Welsh. After all, the boyfriend chooses not to join the vigil ‘because he is English’.

The love of friends

The sociability, the communities of women spread across all the countries referenced here (and, we know, far beyond). The love of friends, the networks women build around themselves, reverberates through the pages: not always trustworthy, but always remembered. Romantic love is, of course part of the pattern.

The collection, taken as a whole, nonetheless is a reminder that over the course of a life, romance alone with no other community, will not sustain us. Family, friends and the love of the land itself, need to be woven into the fabric too.

After her mother’s funeral Caryl leaves her childhood home behind with sadness but few regrets, not looking back ‘except to see the road sign for Pontyrefail growing ever smaller in the rear view mirror.’ Even in permanent estrangement, she has found a tenuous connection.

We see little innocence in these tales. In the first story, we fear for the fourteen-year-old storyteller approached by the adult son of the neighbour.

Yet Mair and Cerys, children trembling at the brink of adult secrets, are given unexpected insight alongside a soft kindness when they venture into the woods. Appearances are often deceiving.

Walking home from their encounter with royalty, the children are silent, till “’He didn’t look much like a fairy,’ said Mair. ‘The tree didn’t look much like the beetles’ road,’ I said, ‘but it does now.’

Wise in betrayal

Thus the lesson the stories offer is as much about learning how to look as other, more adult lessons. And some are grown-up indeed. By the end of the collection, Evelyn shows us that men, misled by lively sexuality, can be more unwary than many an older woman.

As she says to her suitor, revealing her son’s bad ways, ‘I only tell people I trust … sometimes I tell people just to shake them up a bit.’

The women of Wales, this collection suggests, are wise in betrayal.

There is a welcome freshness in these pages. Women may lose love and find it again, experience threat and escape, mourn and rejoice but all the writers bring something new to those familiar scenarios.

In the introduction, the editors refer to the many places of transit to be found. People come and go, whether to the next room or the next life. It is women who move, make new lives for themselves and others, even when, as some find, there are difficult or even traumatic experiences along the way.

There is something new here for every reader and Honno, along with its contributors and editors, are to be congratulated on an intriguing selection.

Lipstick Eyebrows, ed Dunning and Parfitt, published by Honno, available in all good bookshops


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