Review: Connective Tissue by Jane Fraser
A second short story collection is always special. So many writers publish a collection, dust off their hands, and move on to novels, as if that was the real work all along. But a second collection means the writer has found a form they enjoy and respect.
They have spent long hours on the literary equivalent of scales and arpeggios, practising until we can no longer see the work that has gone into their art.
Witness Jane Fraser’s Connective Tissue, a second collection that is subtle, nuanced, elegant, wise, and resonant. Don’t expect baroque plots or hot-button issues. These are stories of mothers and daughters and husbands and wives, and the ordinary matter of their lives.
The language is clean and considered, doing its job unobtrusively, like a perfectly trained butler. Most of them are solidly realist. Most take place almost in real time, and cover a single incident, usually a mundane, everyday incident.
Take the first story, for example, ‘The Sausage Maker’s Daughter’. A teenage girl helps her father set up his butcher’s shop for the day. The mother has a cup of tea in bed then goes out.
As far as plot, that’s it. But in the morning routines, the scraps of conversation, Fraser conveys all the complexity of the family dynamic. How about this for a closing paragraph:
“Stragglers from the grey, rain-drenched neighbourhood come in dribs and drabs, wanting little except a handful of mince, a half a pound of sausages, a packet of dripping, the odd burger. Some want nothing more than a bag of bones for the dog, a scrag end, the left-overs.”
It’s oblique and soft and lovely – just the ending this story wants. The mood here is characteristic: sad but stoical, disappointed but not defeated. These are people who don’t expect very much but still fall short.
This story is one of several featuring the Williams family, who also appeared in Fraser’s first collection, The South Westerlies.
The daughter is called Jane, and quite possibly some of the detail is autobiographical – I’m not going to try and guess. (But if you’re looking for a PhD topic, I offer you whatever double bluff is going on with writers who use their own names for characters.)
She appears again in ‘Plenty of Time, Jane’, a tragi-comic story of marital discord unusual for this volume in that it is triggered by a dramatic accident. As she lies on her driveway waiting for help, she reveals some telling facts about her husband – for example, his new-found hobby of cookery:
“She was going to de-seed and slice a chilli, peel and grate stem ginger, crush garlic and slice the spring onions. Then, when Mr Tucker got home, he would simply have to put it all together et voilà!”
Mr Tucker does seem to disappear off the scene later, for which we can all be thankful.
In the touching final story of the volume, ‘Torn Ligaments’, there is a reconciliation, of sorts, between an older, wiser Jane and the stay-in-bed mother of the first story, now elderly and frail.
It’s not hugs and learning, but a fractional rapprochement between a mother and daughter who’ve held each other at arm’s length for decades:
“She rests her hands on my shoulders to keep her balance while I stoop down and help her off with her shoes and socks and roll up her trousers. She places her stick on the slipway along with her shoes and socks and we step into the ocean near the rocks where the trees run down to the sea. We don’t say anything, but wade, calf-high through the gentle shore-break, the weak sun in our faces as we lean into each other for support.”
The beach, of course, is on Gower – in fact it’s the same beach that was home to the ill-fated boat in The South Westerlies. If you know the place, you will recognise it immediately.
And while this collection travels to the USA, South Africa, and London, the Gower stories are the backbone and the heart of it. Here are Gower’s rainy villages, its long beaches, its honeysuckle breeze and tall hedges.
This landscape gives ample opportunity for symbolism, as in ‘Too Far Up and Too Far Down’, where a woman goes for a walk with a man who is not her husband:
“It’s dangerous ground here: underfoot the jagged limestone is pooled with the ebbing tide and bearded with slippery green kelp and there’s a strong on-shore gusting straight into your face that’s affecting your balance.”
There are occasional forays outside realism, but you must decide for yourself whether what falls from the sky in the delicate, teasing ‘Blackberries’ is otherworldly or transfigured by the narrator’s heightened mental state:
“This was a creature of unspeakable beauty, with a fineness of form which was almost unearthly. Not yet fully mature, you could see the adult that would be in the face that was finely sculpted, sharp and intense; the skin taut and translucent, veins showing through the alabaster, the bloodless lips that looked icy cold, and the eyes, pleading to be cut free.”
Fraser has received many accolades for her writing. A number of these stories have won prizes or appeared on prestigious shortlists, including the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Rhys Davies Short Story competition, while, earlier this year, her novel, Advent, won the Paul Torday Memorial Prize from the Society of Authors.
It is an accolade in itself that this collection forms part of Salt’s new “Modern Stories” showcase, alongside some other very fine writers – do check out Neil Campbell’s Licensed Premises, for instance, to see a different example of a contemporary British short story writer who celebrates place.
Connective Tissue is a mature, polished collection that evolves from its predecessor in pleasing and sometimes surprising ways.
It will delight Fraser’s admirers and win her new fans. As a plus, it comes in a cute pocket format that makes it extra desirable.
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