Review: Pain Sluts by Sian Hughes is exquisite story-telling that punches hard with dark humour
Sarah Morgan Jones
The reviewer’s copy arrived packaged like a classy bar of chocolate – fairly traded, organic – with the promise of pure dark cocoa and a hoofing chilli kick. It had heft, felt special.
I sensed it would be rich and bitter all in one hit and that for best effect I should eat only one or two squares at a time. A treat. I was so right. Each story packed a killer payoff, the first one most of all.
Sian Hughes has created a collection of short stories which every self-respecting writer will wish they had written. Placing each tale in familiar settings, she observes the situation of the central character from a uniquely internal point of view, as they face one of life’s many profound moments.
Birth, sex, or death, power and vulnerability, cruelty and revenge are all themes that course through the veins of these stories, intersecting through the lens of the female condition. Women of all ages come into focus, facing the existential challenges peculiar to their sex.
Each story seems to shine a spotlight on someone teetering on the edge of a potential madness. Or perhaps more accurately, a specific reaction to a threat or a crisis, which, to the outside eye, appears to be unhinged, but described so beautifully from within the head of the collection of central characters, seems a completely rational and just response.
Some characters appear not just in their own story, but as a peripheral in that of another, and this adds to the feeling that we know these women, that we are within a world which is familiar to us and them, and coveys that these are snapshots of full lives not two-dimensional creations.
Looming behind the stories, backdrops such as the constantly smoking crematorium chimney, dark streets, remote woods and hillsides, and lonely yet overcrowded homes in which families lead lives isolated from each other, keep the reader imagining places close to home and within reach, peeping at other lives, unseen, from darkened windows.
The opening story, Consumed, sets the tone of what to expect: a dark response to a heart-breaking event takes the reader by the hand through a maze of unexpected twists and turns. And it doesn’t stop.
Whether tackling the groaning familiarity of sexual harassment, or the generational abyss of understanding between a mother and her daughter, or the unexpectedly deft act of revenge of a sweet and ignorable widow, the reality of loneliness or the tragedy of watching someone disappear into dementia, each story punches hard with dark humour, surprise and minute observation.
The question of identity plays out in layers in the title story, as three women respond to what part of them their breasts represent – one woman desperate to remove them as a symbol and symptom of her womanhood, one facing the removal of hers due to cancer and one considering her own role as a breastfeeding mother in relation to her two friends.
Other stories look at the impact of events on someone’s identity, rites of passage which change the essence of a character or create a sibling bond, or how a simple act of womanly adulting in order to please a boy leads to a terrifying encounter which changes how and who a young woman needs to be.
The stories are rich in the subversion of expectations – women grabbing control of a situation by becoming someone – or something – else and taking devastating or gloriously simple decisions to get through.
Though the subject matter is hard at times, even occasionally gruesome, the stories are short, sharp and eminently readable. The humour and the refreshing insight are brave and candid, unflinching, and these qualities make the collection profoundly enjoyable and not at all maudlin or draped around ‘issues.’
Physically, the book really does have quality and heft, and feels like a treat to handle and read. Not everyone will have the innovative presentation aimed at the reviewers, but nonetheless it will feel like an important book when held: carefully curated storytelling, in a carefully considered package.
Rich, dark, bitter and exquisite, this collection definitely packs that hoofing chilli kick.
Just remember to savour each morsel, and not eat it all in one go.
Pain Sluts by Sian Hughes is published in October by Storgy Books