Review: Five Go to Switzerland by Nigel Jarrett
Five Go to Switzerland is Nigel Jarrett’s fourth collection of short fiction. His previous works have received widespread acclaim and won an array of awards, including the Rhys Davies Award. A polymath of the written word, Jarrett has written essays, poetry and music criticism for a broad range of publications.
I learned these details after reading his latest short story collection, and suddenly everything started to make sense. It’s all here, contained in these pages; the poetry, the effortless prose, and, of course, the music.
Jarrett pours his musical knowledge into his characters, notably in the title story ‘Five Go to Switzerland’. Rick, the jazz-devotee-turned-corpse and who “never needed a context to understand the potency of anything, particularly music” (writers, artists and musos can relate), is an authority on all things Charles Mingus, Erroll Garner and Flip Phillips.
The jazz, however – as it always seems to be – is tied up in another world entirely; one of booze and women and violence.
Then, in the wonderfully-titled ‘Edward Elgar Rehearses the Powick Asylum Staff Band’, we read a reimagined account of the famous composer and his experience practising the quadrille “La Brunette” at the asylum.
In this story, Jarrett’s prose surges and frolics along with the piece of music it references. Long paragraphs rush by with poetic flourishes akin to Elgar’s composition.
These synchronicities are an important part of this book; there is a quiet intelligence running throughout, a knowledge of a world beyond the one of fiction painted in these pages.
You don’t need to know Elgar or Palle Mikkelborg before you start reading Five Go to Switzerland, but you’ll certainly be listening to them by the end of it.
Music lives not only in the sentences of these stories but in the words too. The musicality of the prose leaps vibrantly from the page, words dance across lines like notes blown from John Coltrane’s sax.
The building in the aforementioned Elgar story, for example, is “swaying to his confident tread and curiously silent, its chimneys crawling with gargoyles, those devils protecting the demons within like sentinels appointed by an army of diabolical conquerors.”
Elsewhere, in Wordsworth’s Lake District, there is a journey “in the dark on unlit serpentine roads.” And in another story, the first term of sixth form “was heavy with dank leaf fall and rainy evenings, as if reminders of the gravity of what we’d undertaken, or of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
Indeed, you could open this book to any page, jab a finger down somewhere on it, and be guaranteed to find that you’re mere millimetres away from a deft turn of phrase, a lovely little chunk of prose.
And these beautifully crafted sentences serve a purpose, too. At the beginning of the story ‘Travels in Lakeland’ we are told “There was nothing to do any more. No future beckoned. As a prelude to a sort of oblivion, it couldn’t have been bettered.”
It sets the tone, creates a mood, piques your curiosity. This book is filled with these moments.
It is often said that short stories need to grab your attention from the opening lines. Slow-burning won’t cut it when every word matters. If at all possible, in fact, you should be seized from the opening line. A first sentence that is so captivating, reading on is a necessity rather than a choice.
Jarrett has these by the kegload. Just try this out; “Staring at the family burial plot of the Wordsworths at St. Oswald’s in Grasmere, Cyrus Douglass hated even more the demon that had taken his hand, led him to the back of the chair on which Linda-Mo Reeves was sitting and placed it on her right breast”.
Or how about; “There’s a new man at the cafe at Blaizac”.
Or perhaps my personal favourite; “Rick it was who first spotted the headless kid floating off the pier”.
The first ink splashed onto these blank pages formed the words to draw me in. The rest, I happily discovered, kept me there – line after line, story after story – hooked.
While we’re at it, the story titles are another impressive feature of the book. As well as the aforementioned titles, names such as ‘The Villamoura Long-Distance Sea-Swimming Club’, ‘Kandula the Elephant’, and ‘Incident at the Loch’ all intrigue the curious mind.
The stories in this collection range widely; from historical setting to narrative voice to subject, the variation between them is commendable. The one thing that ties them all together, however, is Jarrett’s passionate style, his love of language and words.
I have a habit of circling, underlining and making notes in the margins of books that I relish. I say this, firstly, to apologise to whoever should inherit my collection of literature when I’m gone, but more importantly to say that my copy of Five Go to Switzerland is tremendously decorated.
Every page has something to savour; not just in the narratives of these wonderful stories but in the way they’re told.
Five Go to Switzerland by Nigel Jarrett is published by Cockatrice Books. You can buy a copy here.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.