Review: Harvest – The Rhys Davies Short Story Award Anthology
Of late, my reading time happens on rail replacement buses. Reliable trains are still in sidings somewhere between a future promise and a long-forgotten certainty. Journeys are long, unpredictable, sometimes abandoned. I’m philosophical, it suits short-form narratives.
The short form has a special fascination for me, my escape. When successful, we empathise quickly – we need to care. We’re sociable beings, alone but not lonely, and ask: What would we do? What do we share with those characters? They allow us to look at ourselves looking.
On the bus, I tune into different conversations as I look at my own reflection. There is comfort in the acknowledgement of being part of something bigger. Even leaning on the window, the cold glass-judder at my temple, I can’t un-tune.
This collection, Harvest, acts in the same way – a new author for each story. I jump to a random starting point and a different voice, a different register. I tune in to the writer and narrator and take part, unobserved, leaving my bus-weary self behind.
I land in We Shall All Be Changed, where Satterday Shaw narrates as Gloria. The story beautifully puts me with her, at the water’s edge. It wavers from wonder to logic, diligent and curious – as a child. In a tender push-pull of siblings, it contemplates life and death as a cycle.
Life, weak and at the same time powerful like a bud that forces itself through stones and death, equally accepted, in the heart-breaking reasoning of not saying goodbye, because Mrs Williams is dead. A powerful reminder of remarkable things told in simple language.
Bricks and Sticks by Rachel Powell also talks of loss, a moving portrait of a family growing together, navigating changes, before this change.
Told through the clearing of possessions, accumulated like dust, it moves through I clench my fists to I let my hand drop to my side to he always holds my hand. The daughter, scared-adult and child, oscillates between anger and despair. Mourning in quiet rage simmers throughout, and everything passes.
Emma Moyles The Pier is hyper real, the sharp focus of trauma; clarity arrives with hindsight. Our gaze ricochets around – the impassive lens of security cameras, photographs, phones, reflected on sunglasses, refracted by mirrors. Distraction and attention build unease, as the timespan extends beyond the incident.
One character learns what happened, when he is much older at school while another is memorialised in a school photograph, his eyes already looking elsewhere.
The Fish Market from Sylvia Rose is a duet out of sync, a relationship once-connected, but adrift. The couple by night and the unnamed city feel mutable, shifting. Unfixed.
Rose’s eye for detail – tactile detail – is startling in simplicity and potency, like fragments of a bigger narrative. It makes the near-misses more painful, as the story breaks over one line; when you know what you should do and how you should act so clearly, and yet can in no way make it happen.
Dan Williams’ The Nick of Time draws another relationship. His clockwork repetition of the slow cut, slice, nick marks a steady whittling away of patience, of love, if ever it was.
Their marriage, retirement and an uneasy relationship with land, with people. She looks at him, all food stains and avarice, like she would stare at a stranger, indulged, presiding over his empire of junk. He may see her as his newest wife, but she thinks of him as her latest husband.
Welcome to Momentum 2023. Emily Vanderploeg’s story exposes further this idea of Wales as an escape, a place of recreation. It taps into a deep feeling I get whenever I hear middle of nowhere to describe places in Wales. Hackles rise. The narrator witnesses the eco-tourism, self-help quiet-life-seekers; the type that have colonised Wales since the 60s. It is a short, concise story, shown through characters more than told.
Perhaps the darkest of the stories is JL George’s Sunny Side Up. The inevitability of the machines of power and the despair, the hopelessness permeates. They seamlessly pack the story with the bizarre and mundane – religious piety, sin eaters, a honeycombed hollow valley; an unfulfilled American dream and a visceral fry-up that tastes of nothing, of rain. The final act of Billy, the unanswered question who drank until he couldn’t feel his face is to read the graffiti scrawled menu.
Ruby Burgin takes us into another culture and another world in Kind Red Spirit. A journey through the grief of a daughter for her mother. Shame and acceptance and a search for meaning. The half world – neither here nor there – heightens the distance between the left-behind, father and daughter.
But the story ends in hope. He hands her a red school jacket, bought three sizes too big for her to grow into as they step out of the narrative together.
Any story that opens with Six fingers poked out of the mud… has me hooked from the off. I land in Bethan L Charles Save The Maiden; the voice is contemporary but the ancient setting, mythical beasts and punishing lore of oral storytelling. I remembered that in Welsh, moving water – streams, rivers, brooks – is feminine, while still water – seas and lakes – is masculine. Charles delivers a satisfying moral ending and takes us back to that opener.
Second to Last Rites by Ruairi Bolton is told, more than read. He’s a floating narrator, spinning sentences packed with imagery and subclauses that we’re slack-jawed bedtime recipients of the tale, words [have] power and breaks out the fine ones for special occasions. He maintains just enough relatable feeling. Like Powell and Burgin it’s a story of things passing. The line: it’s like watching pieces of me be washed away. Soon I’ll be the only one left with my memories – could be in any of these three.
Matthew G Rees story, Harvest, lending the collection its title, is a tale of territory, control, of leaving, of rage – at bureaucracy and change – fuelled by the weight of generational expectation as the end of the line.
The voice of Cock Davies is distracted, jumpy – interrupting himself all the time. Em-dashes – (brackets) semi colons; as thought patterns race between tides, the long distant past and an encroaching present. Speech flows in two languages, but the bracketed translation takes me away from the shore. Part of me would rather read the Welsh, or understand it as reported in English, as happens elsewhere in the volume.
This is minor, Rees rewards us with poetry, at times landing perfectly – the rake has been polished eel-smooth, the cockle occupies his palm under grey and whale-heavy heavens. Accurately drawn masculinity, a man more of clouds than silver linings he is seldom less than certain, a distempered dog in pursuit of its tail. A man in the last throes of his diminishing harvest.
I end with Joshua Jones, who inhabits Nos Da Pop Star in the voice of Chloe. Restlessly trying to find her place and her ambition, to stay or to leave. The story pivots on a performance; tension and the anticipation is the narrative scaffolding of that singular moment onstage. Jones is skillful at circling from backstage to audience, while maintaining her voice at its centre.
It is her and him simultaneously. The story sidesteps expectations, the act neither disaster or success. There is a fourth act – a firework that shines light on the other performers. A winner is declared, but at the end of the night, winning really might not be the point. Escaping might be.
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