Culture

Review: Take a Bite is a collection of strong tales that celebrate the short story form

24 Oct 2021 7 minutes Read
Take a Bite

Jon Gower

In the preface to The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies this accomplished master of the short story notes that:

the instinct to dive, swift and agile, into the openings of a story, holds, for me, half the technical art; one must not on any account loiter or brood in the first paragraph; be deep in the story’s elements in a few seconds.

The man himself would surely enjoy seeing how often the writers in this collection – all winners of the competition named after him – do precisely this, diving straight into the heart of the matter.

Within the collection of twelve stories, edited by Elaine Canning, we have Susmita Bhattacharya’s tale ‘The Truth is a Dangerous Landscape,’ which maps out the terrain of the story pretty much in the title alone, a tale of two sisters who have each been abused, then forced to hide the fact.

They take faltering steps to force their family to accept what has happened. The action centres on India, which is conjured into being in deft strokes of colour and detail such as the circling vultures looking like ‘pairs of hands stretched out to cup the sun,’ the shondhamoni flowers and the snakes, both human and reptile, that skulk in wait in the long grass.

The title of Philippa Holloway’s ‘A Cloud of Starlings’ makes the reader anticipate a whirling murmuration of birds, yet the ones in this touching account of a mother and daughter relationship are dead specimens, scattered on the ground, mysteriously felled and fallen.

Captivity

There are more birds in Chloë Heuch’s ‘Y Castell’ which pivots on a young boy’s decision about which parent he wants to live with, set against a panoply of a falconry display, where words such as captivity and freedom quite naturally take flight.

There are echoes of the same sort of situation in Craig Hawes’ psychologically tender and astute ‘Coat of Arms’ which finds two men jousting over the affections of a small boy against a backdrop of medieval re-enactment, full of heraldic pomp and clanking armour.

Meanwhile, a quieter story, Giancarlo Gemin’s Covid-era ‘Cure Time’ sets lonely widow Eileen in a domestic setting, where a new kitchen is being fitted by a talented tradesman called Lee, who is the only man in her life, despite her gamely trying online dating. It’s a telling tale about a woman scared of her own home, of living with absence and regret.

Structure

Some stories stand out for their use of structure, such as Kate Lockwood Jefford’s ‘Conditions for an Avalanche’ which is arranged around snowy nuggets of information about the making of an avalanche, a three-syllable world which can, like poverty, bury a person completely. And it can happen without warning, even in a warehouse full of flat-pack furniture where there might have been ‘an avalanche of wardrobes…’

Sometimes a story brings with it pleasant shocks of recognition, such as Joshua Jones’ ‘Half Moon, New Year’ which is set in a haunt of my own misspent youth, the eponymous old-school Llanelli drinking clinic of the title.  It’s the sort of place where ‘older men and women sit around rickety tables with sticky tops, perch on stools around the bar,’ waiting for the televised festivities and fireworks. But they get their own floorshow as Danny Jenkins, three or maybe thirteen sheets to the wind, careers through the night towards the midnight bells, flailing and fighting as he goes.

Lipstick

Danny is perhaps charged up by the same testosterone type of ‘Juice’ as the one in Rosie Manning’s story of that name, in which a bullied boy not only sees one of the stars of the rugby team applying lipstick but films it, too, leading to a story very pertinent in these times of Instagram kiss-and-tell.

The same sort of ambivalent sexuality is present in Jupiter Jones’ ‘Bird’ in which Bowen, a one-legged man who lives with his dogs and bird of prey on the edge of the forestry encounters a young lad in boots and a floral dress who has come to the valley to scatter the remains of his auntie Dilys. It’s a vivid portrait of a brief friendship between very two different albeit kindred souls.

Elizabeth Pratt’s ‘James, in During’ is an unsettling lockdown story in which James fixates, stalker-like on Rachel, who lives in the same block of apartments.  He purloins what looks like a Xmas card addressed to her, which turns out to contain a very personal message and much of the story finds him on the horns of a dilemma.

How does he now deliver it?  And who is she anyway? James begins to imagine her life and then their shared life together, whilst trying to summon up the courage to knock on her door.  When it finally opens it is left tantalisingly slightly ajar, an ambivalence present in the ending of many a good story.

Breakdown

Brennig Davies’ ‘Dogs in a Storm’ is a poignant tale of unfulfilled love in which Mary-Ann teeters on the edge of breakdown, forgetting to feed her kids, buying loads of junk she doesn’t need when she hits the shop and dyeing her hair ‘Sunset Red.’ Her mental state is such that she ‘wants the storm to come, to flay her skin from her bones.’ This is a woman in a tumult of pain, in the middle of crazy weather, not least because she missed one of life’s moments of great potential, way back when she and Sally met, and they discussed Virginia Woolf and could have been together.

Rhys Davies’ advice about beginning a short story by diving in doesn’t apply to Naomi Paulus’ ‘Take a Bite’ and yet I have little doubt he’d have read it with genuine pleasure. As the judge of the competition, Julia Bell says of this story, it is ‘perhaps the closest to Rhys Davies’ style mixing both realism with a stylish linguistic flourish and an especially acute ear for dialogue.’ The chatter of four sisters gathered in one place is indeed supremely well done, the lines weaving into an aural tapestry as the different conversations spool and unspool. It’s also a story set during a funeral, which is true of many in Rhys Davies’ own dark output. And there is slightly exaggerated characters and the occasional burst of startling language:

To be handled by one of Rhian’s aunts was to be graunched and broken. Dismantled. Even Rhian sometimes found it difficult to stay whole around them. Gwen could sense even mild misery in just the rhythm of Rhian’s breath. It wasn’t that they picked on weakness; they sought it out with their grotesquely well-meaning demands.

‘Take a Bite’ presents a dozen stories by confident practitioners of the short story form, all clearly revelling in the concisions of the form and the exigencies of telling a tale with restraint and economy and also equipped with just the right tools, being a prose writer’s paring-knife and a flashbulb for all those vivid flashbulb moments.

‘Take a Bite’ is published by Parthian. You can buy a copy here:

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