A good short story writer often stakes out a territory, makes a place her own. Think of Annie Proulx’s tales, set in stands of lodgepole pines and washed by the Fujicolor sunsets of Wyoming or Claire Keegan’s vivid evocations of the blue fields of her native County Wicklow.
Similarly, Jane Fraser maps out the edge of north Gower in this supremely confident debut collection with its “farmhouses limewashed in the vernacular style, ”its persistent grey rains” and the dominant southwesterly winds which bonsai the hedgerow trees and equally shape the stubborn characters who work the land hereabouts.
So in its pages, we visit the “damp, north-facing village of Llanmadoc”, take in the big skies from the top of Welsh Moor and witness the sea in its many moods – as surfer’s obsession, as murderous danger or as fisherman’s reward. And always the weather, those eponymous winds, scything and sweeping in, sometimes as “squalls that would wipe summer away” or, on less gusty days pushing some low clouds and thus “smudging the horizon.”
It produces some lovely writing as when “a cold front had pushed in off the Atlantic and punished this west coast with venom, uprooting trees and upending caravans. Take that as well, it seemed to screech.”
These pellucidly written stories have real range with all manner of material woven in, from marital differences and disappointments, funeral rites, the death of livestock, infidelity, cockling, the burdens of children and ageing parents, life in claustrophobic caravans and the difficulties of being blessed with the gift of prophecy. It is as if writing is a sort of beachcombing, never knowing what the next tide will bring in. Sometimes a mermaid’s purse, sometimes an oil slick. But always something there to demand our quick attention.
Y Fari Lwyd
Fraser shares with Keegan a penchant for the sudden, violent interruption, be it a drunk farmer fatally crashing his Nissan, through the terrible suddenness of a child’s drowning to a brother’s terrible revenge on his brother for seemingly stealing his land or brutal domestic violence.
These arrive so matter of fact that they are somehow even more shocking. But this tourist Mecca, the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is also a testing terrain, where women are assessed as breeding stock and neighbours are both nosy and suspicious in the same breath.
It is also a promontory of land which is deeply steeped in folklore, so some of the stories have a supernatural bent. In “Just in Case” a woman is haunted by a white owl, which sighting becomes even more ominous when she harks her mother’s warning that “things come in threes.”
In “The Grey Mare” the tradition of the Fari Lwyd, in which a horse’s head would be taken around from door to door demanding admission is cleverly inverted so that its appearance becomes totally horrifying for a man who greets the normally harmless Fari’s skull at the farmhouse door.
Because of the deftly drawn and detailed setting on Gower of each tale it comes as something of a disappointment when the focus of a story shifts to, say rural France or Florida, akin to what happens when Claire Keegan moves her characters from Ireland to Louisiana. The unity of the stories, and thus their strength is their setting, their sea-girt terrain, and some of that is lost when they stray too far beyond North Gower.
But that’s a minor cavil when the other stories work so well, hauling you in like mackerel, transfixing you like a hanging moon, suspended over the milky sea as it washes the very edge of the land. For this is the Welsh Finisterre, where hard rock yields to time’s erosions, and the pub never really shuts.
So many stories are shored up by fine, nuanced landscape-writing such as “Just in Case” which presents the reader with the burrows “brushed with the burnished bronze of sunrise and the conical dunes, a lunar landscape, sharply defined and stark with shadow that will lift with the rising sun.” Lovely stuff, and there’s lots of it but always balanced by shadow, the darkness seeping in like damp.
Fittingly the title story is saved for the end, and happens to be one of the most satisfying in the collection, mixing, as it does, ghost pregnancies with real ghosts and ending with a conflagration, a real bonfire.
With a collection this good, it would have been fitting to set off fireworks too, to set the sky on fire above Rhossili and make wild Roman candles spin out onto the endless waves.
The South Westerlies by Jane Fraser is published by Salt Publishing and costs £9.99.