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The short stories contained in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah debut collection “Friday Black” have a startling way of mixing everyday realism with the fantastic. Many characters are working class individuals struggling to keep their families going while labouring in retail or the night shift at a warehouse. But at the same time they can also be imbued with powers from a Twelve-tongued God, become a spirit who knows how to quell the murderous impulses of bullied boys or a 14 year old female super killer who survives daily nuclear explosions. Violence abounds throughout the stories. There are crazed shoppers who kill everyone in their way to get to sale items and there are groups who commit bloody acts of violence in retaliation for racially-motivated murders. The author amplifies some of the most contentious social issues of today in scenarios which are sadly not far from the truth. Everything from gun control to racism to abortion to genetic engineering are integrated into warped versions of reality giving a new view on these hot topics. The stories are powerfully imaginative while being darkly funny as well as heartbreakingly emotionally honest.  

Some of these tales worked better than others for me. I admire how in 'The Finkelstein 5' the story switches back and forth between two narratives. One half portrays a court trial where a white man is exonerated for beheading five black children with a chainsaw. The other half is from the perspective of a narrator who becomes part of a “Naming” gang that tortures random white people while calling out the names of the slayed black children. It felt really effective how this dual story describes a society where facts and truth have become so twisted up in the willpower of belief. The defence lawyer says at one point “if you believe something, anything then that's what matters most. Believing. In America we have the freedom to believe.” In a justice system that has allowed so many rank instances of injustice to go unpunished, it’s tragically unsurprising that some feel vigilante justice is the only option available. But this story gets at the ambivalence of such a path while delivering a riveting tale that’s a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and The Purge film series.

Not all of the stories conjure up wild fantasies or show instances of extreme violence. Another story ‘The Lion & The Spider’ also uses an alternating dual narrative where in one half a father tells his children stories based in Caribbean folklore. The other half shows a young man left to care for his ailing mother while finishing school and working a job after the father unexpectedly leaves for a long period of time. This creates an emotionally-charged atmosphere within the story as feelings of youthful innocence are paired against the onerous responsibilities of a premature adulthood when a father shirks his duty. Some of the most touching moments in this collection come when well-meaning children are forced into being carers for their parents such as a young man who takes his father to a labyrinthine hospital in 'The Hospital Where' or a young man who wants to win a jacket for his mother in a sales-driven retail competition.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

Sometimes the creative slant the author takes on certain issues doesn’t work quite as smoothly. 'Lark Street' describes a man who comes under the accusatory gaze of his girlfriend’s aborted twin foetuses. While the story takes seriously this emotionally harrowing dilemma it felt like it revelled a little too freely in the grotesque nature of such a scenario. Equally 'Light Spitter' which describes an instance of a campus gun slaying relies a little too heavily on conventional ideas of angelic influence – even with the twist that even the “irredeemable” has a moral core. Still other stories have a surprising degree of repetitive elements like the diligent mall employees in both 'How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing' and ‘Friday Black’. But the later title story felt much more successful in hilariously playing up what’s become the most ridiculous post-Thanksgiving annual retail tradition.

One of the most striking things about this book is the consistent feeling that working class young people are frequently forced to compromise their values and education in order to make a living. Sometimes individuals must play into racial stereotypes or swallow their pride in the face of blatant racism in order to maintain their jobs. There are also asides which testify to being made to feel otherness: “A nurse called out sounds that we understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.” Such feelings are most dramatically described in the story 'Zimmer Land' where an employee submits to being the continuous victim in violent role playing scenarios that are purportedly about “interactive justice engagement”. This story cleverly portrays the hypocrisy of profit-driven initiatives that claim to teach morality but actually perpetuate stereotypes and bigotry. I’m impressed how daring and forceful the author is in creatively describing instances of painful injustice and social inequality. He’s certainly an impressive new author well worth paying attention to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When we enter the woods we can't help imbuing the natural world with so many of our own emotions. The beauty of trees, flowers and wildlife transform into metaphors for what we're feeling. In Seán Hewitt's pamphlet of poetry “Lantern” he explores the experience of entering nature, observing it and finding our selves there. We might enter it seeking solace or to hide or engage in an illicit encounter or as a respite from the business of civilization. It's where our language has no meaning: “the places where words extinguish themselves and leave all the things that cannot be fixed or forgotten.” In this way, he delicately illuminates the sense of being we get from entering a place where we cast our emotions out in an act of transformation, but find that we are the ones who are transformed. 

There is a constancy to nature and a sense that it's timeless or, at least, that the woods experience time very differently from us. In one poem the narrator recounts planting trees as a school child and comparing his growth over the years to that of the woods which have grown more slowly. If we ever return to a tree we planted in childhood or a sapling we observed as a child we experience a moment of reflection and how we've changed in so many unexpected ways since the innocence of our youth. By comparison, the tree's growth seems incremental but no less monumental. In the poem 'Clock' it's observed “though I love you I know there is no such thing as held time, this tree seems suddenly like a stillness, a circle of quiet air, a place to stand now that I have had to leave” There is a reassurance to a tree's steady progress over the years and a solemn acceptance that we ourselves will experience radical transformations unlike this simple growth. 

I enjoyed how many of these poems give a sense of dramatic emotional events having occurred without disclosing the details of them. Instead they focus on this interchange between the narrator and the way nature has changed under his gaze. It can seem like a holy experience yet it is irreligious like a silver birch “for he does not observe liturgical time”. The poems also convey a sense of guilt from casting our experiences and emotions onto nature as if we've spoiled its purity: “I wonder if I have ruined these places for myself, if I have brought each secret to them and weighed the trees with things I can no longer bear.” Because entering the natural world is a form of reckoning where we hope to be altered, brought back to ourselves or made anew like in a poem where it's wondered “Are we all just wanting to see ourselves changed, made unearthly?” 

Many of these poems simply have a quiet beauty to them and I admire the way they contain so much feeling, but let it simmer beneath the surface. They make striking reflections on how we situate ourselves in relation to nature and how entering it allows us to return to our lives having cast ourselves into it as in the final haunting lines of the collection “I turn home, and all across the floor the spiked white flowers light the way. The world is dark but the wood is full of stars.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSeán Hewitt
2 CommentsPost a comment
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Sometimes I feel like fiction that falls somewhere between short stories and a novel is my favourite kind of writing. This sort of book probably occurs for practical reasons when the author initially started writing short stories and then groups them together with some connecting characters (since novels traditionally sell better than collections of short stories.) But I think this form allows an opportunity for the author to explore many different perspectives or themes using different narrative styles and points of view. The effect can be really powerful in how it shows a multifaceted view of a story.  Some examples of books like this are “Send Me” by Patrick Ryan, “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “All That Man Is” by David Szalay, “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh, “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang and “The Shore” by Sara Taylor. Adding to this style of storytelling is the debut book by JM Holmes “How Are You Going to Save Yourself?” which follows the stories of four black men living in Rhode Island as they progress through the tricky stages of young adulthood.

Holmes often uses dialogue with great precision to evoke character and create dramatic tension in different stages of these men’s lives. The book begins with a conversation between friends Gio, Dub, Rye and Rolls as they share stories about sex and relationships with white girls. Discussions about sex as power play, economic disparity and institutionalised racism feature throughout the book making for some edgy exchanges that reveal a deeper kind of truth. Holmes is unflinchingly honest in presenting the boys’ vulnerability such as a scene where a black man feels self-conscious about being naked in front of a white woman “I told myself I wasn’t on an auction block in front of her.” But some of the most unsettling stories focus more on the perspective of female teenagers or young women that these boys are dating. He sharply portrays egregious instances of misogyny and violence towards women such as when a girl is coerced into having sex with multiple boys: “He stared Tayla straight in the eye and she felt her body tense. They were all focused on her, but not really her, some imagined girl. Their eyes were buried in her body.” These descriptions of sex strikingly show the interplay between the gaze and the imagination, as well as how prejudice and fear can be deeply internalised. The stories expose how girls and women are unfortunately often the recipients of abuse because of these issues and the power dynamics involved. They also describe how when people are totally stripped down (both physically and mentally) unconscious concerns about skin colour suddenly fill the minds of the parties involved.

Gio’s father Lonnie is a former footballer whose star has faded. References to his complicated life are threaded throughout several of the stories so that he is like a mythological figure in the boys’ minds, but I found it especially powerful when it’s described how the sport had a long-lasting physical impact upon him: “His body was riddled with scars thick as butter knives.” Equally, changes to the boys’ bodies as they work in various different jobs are presented in a striking way such as when Rye becomes a fireman. Others pursue more cerebral jobs such as teaching or abstract art. Their choices take them upon divergent paths and it’s poignant how they grow apart in different ways while still maintaining a common bond. In this way the book functions as a coming of age tale, but it’s so creatively presented as these boys variously make different compromises and struggle to figure out where they fit in society.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJM Holmes
2 CommentsPost a comment
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Part of what excites me about reading a debut author’s book is the originality of voice I might discover. The short fiction in “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado is so wild and inventive with an impressive variation in structure and subject matter shown from story to story. Often they branch into supernatural or surreal territories where women fade away into the stitching of designer dresses or the spirits of dead prostitutes with bells for eyes haunt a female detective. One story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the narrator numbers the amount of lovers she’s had, another occurs at a housewarming party that goes awry and one is centred around a clothing shop which seeks to “terrify our patrons into an existential crisis.” But, while this fiction often spills into a wonderful absurdity, I frequently felt an emotional resonance which made it seem very real. Throughout the narrators or characters are disarmingly assertive which gives these tales a confidential and urgent tone: “you may have heard some version of this story before but this is the one you need to know.”

Many of the stories take a different slant on the complications of desire and sex, often describing lesbian affairs or relationships. They also involve complicated ideas about women’s bodies, femininity and the way women present themselves. One that deals with this explicitly is ‘Eight Bites’ where a woman gets “bariatric” surgery in an effort to get thin after all her sisters have already done so. She asks in this “Will I ever be done, transformed into the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” This is such a fascinating take on the philosophical tension between becoming and being. It’s so exhausting how our lives are frequently concerned with trying to lose weight, get fitter and eat better. Machado has a talent for dredging up all this anxiety which sounds like a low hum throughout our lives. The protagonist of the fable-like ‘The Husband Stitch’ insists that a certain adornment on her body cannot be touched like a private bit of the self that must be preserved and when this is violated she literally comes undone. Another story ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ shows women wilfully melding into designer clothes in a way that seems to provoke questions about the importance we place on fashion and commodities to enhance our sense of self-worth.

I was surprised at how Machado could stir in me feelings of nostalgia with precise descriptions of a thing or sensation I haven’t felt in a long time. For instance, she describes “hard candies twisted in strawberry-patterned cellophane” which I can recall and visualise so precisely as if their colourful wrappers were more exciting than the taste of the candy itself. Or, at one point, a character remembers being a child sitting in front of a humidifier and breathing in the dense mist being pumped out. It’s fascinating how she can use these descriptions to reach back in time to our former selves recognizing in them a more vulnerable or innocent state in our lives. One of the most sombre instances of this is the story ‘The Resident’ where a writer travels to an artists’ residency which happens to be situated on a lake where she spent time as a child camping with a troop of Brownies. Her creative process seems to compel her to physically confront her younger, more awkward self and produces an almost complete breakdown.

As with all the greatest absurd fiction, humour treads closely alongside darker sensations of dread. There are some wickedly funny and original descriptions of people from “a man mean as Mondays” to someone accused of being an “aggressively ordinary woman.” There's also many amusing commentaries on modern life: “Benson is sure that her smartphone is smarter than she is, and finds it deeply upsetting.” Quite often I felt compelled to read on just because I was fascinated to see where she'd take the story next. When it felt like the stories were becoming too ridiculously unhinged I'd come upon a line which felt startlingly heartfelt: “something inside of me is breaking, I am a continent but I will not hold.” Not only does her narrative frequently burst into odd and unfamiliar territory but the form of the story itself is often a revelation. This ranges from instructions that the listener of this tale should cut the reader's hand to the novella ‘Especially Heinous’ which takes the form of episode/season summaries for a supernatural detective television show. Only occasionally did it feel like the stories became so abstract as to be completely alienating like some sections of the stories 'Mothers' and ‘Difficult at Parties’. But, overall, this is a collection filled with such wondrous delights and sharp edges that I revelled in the experience of reading it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment

I was drawn to reading this debut short story collection by the beauty of its deep-blue, silver-illustrated cover and the strength of blurbs from excellent cutting-edge writers Helen Oyeyemi and Sjon. These imaginative stories do feel in some fundamental way to be aligned with these authors because of the way they similarly bend reality to give new insight into society, language and our perceptions of the past. The subjects of Tharoor's stories are far-ranging from a town awaiting its imminent destruction by an invading army to a conqueror cursed with impotence to a Russian ship hedged in by icebergs. They span great swaths of time from soldiers conversing in a heated battle in 190 BC to diplomats from dying nations marooned on a luxury spaceship in a dystopian future. Yet, there is a curious unity between these invigorating and fascinating tales which ponder the evolution of our civilization by focusing on migration, storytelling and what's left in and selected out of recorded history: “Humanity, after all, was nothing but a library.”

Several stories consider the way in which different cultures intermingle by appropriating, borrowing, learning and stealing from each other. In some voyages the explorers set out to discover and plunder, but instead find their dreams of conquest stymied by violent confrontations with the unknown. The erratic and far-reaching story ‘Letters Home’ considers many kinds of these journeys all over the world which are cut short. There's a sense of possible touchstones between civilizations which are lost through accidental blunders and chance. The story 'The Astrolabe' features a captain who has lost his ship and crew before washing on the shore of a strange island. What could have been a tale like 'The Tempest' or Robinson Crusoe hands its story over to the island's native population who consider the captain's “advancements” and dramatically reject him. Other stories consider the cross-flow of cultures in more contemporary settings such as 'Cultural Property' where a student contemplates reclaiming an artefact found on a university campus or 'The Loss of Muzaffar' where a dazzlingly talented immigrant chef caters to a wealthy NYC family against the backdrop of 9/11.

Two compelling stories show a more academic meeting point between one person and another from dramatically different social and economic groups to consider issues of cultural appropriation. In the title story ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ an elderly woman's voice is recorded by ethnographers as she is the last person to speak her native language. She considers how “Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” Also, the story gives a deeply fascinating perspective on the social meaning of words and language's evolution. It incorporates the way folklore is imbued with personal and political stories. The story ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ depicts a Skype conversation between a magazine photographer and a miner discussing how the meaning his life and family appear in photographs that were taken. There is some fundamental break happening in the translation between the subject, the photograph and the viewer which creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay 'On Photography'. This conversation is further complicated by the translator who is necessary for the photographer to speak to his subject.

Iskandar in battle

Iskandar in battle

One of the most sustained sections of the book features a series of short retellings of legends from Arabic literature that depict Alexander the Great or Iskandar (as Muslim hero). Here the leader's insatiable lust for power and control over the world sees him rampage through different nations and even journey to the bottom of the ocean to claim it for his own. This conqueror's perspective is the opposite of the view we're given in 'Tale of the Teahouse' where we feel the increasing alarm of a city about to be invaded. Tharoor has a flair for depicting clashes for power and dominance that is both dramatic and meditative. His writing reminds me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories – not so much in style, but the way they contemplate the philosophical meaning of how people throughout history have flung themselves out into the great unknown to reshape civilization and their understanding of themselves. “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a deeply thoughtful book as well as being a delight to read for its imaginative leaps in storytelling.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKanishk Tharoor

It’s difficult to write about desire in a way which feels wholly new, but that’s something author April Ayers Lawson does repeatedly in her debut book. There’s a persistent sense in these five short stories that young people have access to a multitude of sexual imagery and opportunities. They are either totally sheltered from sex or there is a presumption that they know how to emotionally deal with the more mature aspects of sexuality. Yet their innocence and naivety leave them unprepared to accept the physical reality of sex and its consequences. Lawson has a fascinating way of describing the separation between people’s intentions and the outcomes of their unwieldy romantic and sexual yearnings. She does this through poignant imagery and layering complicated feelings between her characters. It’s apt that the title story ‘Virgin’ is what this book is named after because the feeling of purity cut through with the startling reality of intimate encounters recurs throughout each story.

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 The character Conner is sexually drawn to Andrew Wyeth's The Helga Pictures

The character Conner is sexually drawn to Andrew Wyeth's The Helga Pictures

Often people who ought to be the object of desire are passed over for people the characters find themselves unexpectedly attracted to. In ‘Virgin’ a married man finds himself inappropriately staring at the breasts of a cancer survivor, in ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’ women press against each other in an intimate space while gossiping about their complicated private lives and in 'The Way You Must Play Always' teenager Gretchen is drawn to a much older man who is terminally ill. I found it really effective the way Lawson shows how desire is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. In real life the object of desire isn’t necessarily who you imagine you’d be drawn to. Teenage boy Conner is both intrigued and repulsed by his mother’s transvestite friend Charlene in ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’. He steals a book with paintings by Andrew Wyeth that contains art which isn’t immediately sexy, but what he finds seductive about these paintings are the representation of the physical weight and reality of the woman Wyeth repeatedly painted. In the final story ‘Vulnerability’ at one point the main character is shown paintings by an artist who depicts scenes of garish violence that he imagines occurring between people in the South (rather than any experiences he’s witnessed). There’s a disjuncture throughout this book between the reality of actions/emotions/experiences and how they are envisioned in people’s minds.

It’s interesting reading an author who clearly comes out of an established tradition of writing from the American South – at times parts of these stories made me think of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor – but Lawson’s subjects are much more modern and her influences wide-ranging: one story begins with a quote from Margaret Atwood. The themes of humorous sexual confusion reminded me slightly of Patrick Ryan’s wonderful stories from “The Dream Life of Astronauts”. April Ayers Lawson gives such a lively and refreshing slant on the peculiar reality of people’s relationships to each other that I found “Virgin and Other Stories” often surprising, enlightening and a pleasure to read.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It's not till the last part of this debut short story collection by author Danielle McLaughlin that you reach the title story. If you've read all the stories in order (as I did) then you'll already have a sense of the title's more complex meaning. It’s a phrase taken from a conversation in one story where a child speculates that if dinosaurs were made extinct after a meteor hit Earth there could still be dinosaurs on other planets. However, a more layered understanding of how this image’s meaning connects with human relationships comes from the interactions of the characters throughout all of the stories. They convey a sensation that, even if we are emotionally destroyed in our own circumscribed existence, other lives still carry on independently. There is a feeling running through many of these varied and skilfully-written tales that the existence of others happens at a far remove from you and your own internal reality. Even if we live in close proximity to each other and especially if we're in a relationship with someone, the bulk of these other lives remains distinct and private. McLaughlin subtly handles this by creating deeply immersive and compelling stories which show a keen sense of how people relate to each other.

These stories centre on a broad spectrum of people from a university girl to a working class young man to a philandering husband to a grandmother. I admire how the author represents many different classes of Irish society. There is a story about a poor father and daughter who run a mink farm who take extreme actions to secure feed for their livestock. Another story directly references the Irish property bubble where a working mother loses faith in her husband who is searching for a job and she wanders through her decimated community which resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape. The story ‘A Different Country’ shows the divide in understanding between urban dwellers and rural fishermen who take action against seals who meddle with their fishing nets. In ‘All About Alice’ a 45 year old woman feels bound to still live with and care for her father so on the rare occasions he is away she explores her hidden lascivious side. Together these stories form a complex portrait of society made up of different social groups all functioning in relative independence from each other.

McLaughlin also shows a complex understanding of gender. The first story 'The Art of Foot-Binding' features a daughter who takes a class project about an antiquated sexist practice to heart using it as a form of self harm because of her own insecurities about her weight. At the same time, her mother Janice emotionally binds herself in another way desperately trying to keep up appearances for her faltering relationship. Interspersed with Janice’s account are instructions about foot-binding coated in a poetic language which perversely emphasizes the barbarity of the practice. The juxtaposition of these instructions with the mother’s story creates a powerful new understanding about the way women have harmed themselves and each other throughout time because of social and misogynistic expectations that they live under.

Lily mistakenly identifies flowers by the side of her train as oleanders just as she mis-identifies the meaning of someone's friendly gesture

Lily mistakenly identifies flowers by the side of her train as oleanders just as she mis-identifies the meaning of someone's friendly gesture

Other stories present very different kinds of challenges that women face. In 'Not Oleanders' a woman named Lily unexpectedly travels abroad in Italy when her companion cancels on her. On the train she meets a younger woman and believes that there is romantic potential between them. Interestingly, this is the first piece of fiction I’ve read that highlights a person’s clavicles as a part of the body to be desired! Because of some wrongfooted signals, there is a tragic misunderstanding. McLaughlin writes a beautiful line about the experience of humiliation: “The humiliation of earlier had faded a little. It would return, of course, as humiliations always did, it would wait for her in the long grass of memory.” I love how this captures the way in which our instances of shame recur in our minds over and over throughout our lives. The character of Aileen in ‘Silhouette’ lives in London but nervously returns to visit her mother in Ireland to tell her she’s pregnant. However, her aged and ailing mother has very traditional narrow values and Aileen is unwed and having an affair with a married man. A girl going to university in 'The Smell of Dead Flowers' acts somewhat as an agent of chaos in a household where she submits to a lodger's sexual advances and distracts her relative from the care of her mentally disabled daughter.

The author writes just as compellingly about struggles particular to men. In 'Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate' a married man attends a children’s party for the child of his former lover creating a tense environment for her and her husband. His intentions feel unknown even to himself. The man at the centre of 'Along the Heron-Studded River' has a wife with mental health issues who cares for their young child while he’s at work. There is a sense that care and attention for her must be handled delicately or there could be disastrous results. This is represented in a powerful image of him driving across icy pockets of water in wintertime “shattering membranes of ice stretched across the puddles.” In 'Night of the Silver Fox' a young man named Gerard finds his burgeoning feelings of romance squashed in the face of hard world economic realities. Throughout all of these diverse stories it’s compelling the way McLaughlin presents such varied portraits of the way gender roles can play into the way we relate to each other.

I first heard about this book when I attended an event chaired by Thomas Morris at the Southbank Centre in London towards the end of last year featuring authors Colin Barrett, Claire-Louise Bennett and Kevin Barry – all part of the so-called Irish New Wave. Barrett mentioned that this is one of the strongest books he’s read recently which made me really intrigued since I admired his debut story collection so much. I found each story in “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” captivating in its own way. McLaughlin has a talent for creating tension in her scenes of everyday reality so that every detail reflects deeper stories of hidden affairs, desperation, financial insecurity or love that has gone sour. I felt compelled to go back to the beginning of some stories after I finished them and reread them now that I had a fuller understanding of the characters. This is the mark of great fiction as these stories have real depth which isn’t immediately apparent. They are also so entertaining and beautifully-written that they made me want to spend more time with them. As this is only a debut collection, I think Danielle McLaughlin demonstrates tremendous skill and confidence in her writing. This is definitely a book to be savoured.

The title is certainly a statement that rings true. However hard we try to order our lives and find meaning we’re all just stumbling around ardently making plans and searching for connections, but mostly bumping into things. The stories in Thomas Morris’ debut collection feature characters that are highly relatable. They are driven more by impulse than strategic plans which makes them often feel dislocated or caught in between stages of life in a way similar to Ann Beattie’s stories in her recent book “The State We’re In.” Morris’ characters feel they should be progressing onto something else, but they don’t know what that something else is. The protagonists of each story vary widely in gender, sexuality and socio-economic status featuring people ranging from a young woman devoid of nostalgia who returns home for Christmas to a twice-widowed elderly man trying to arrange a date for the Big Cheese festival. They all live a precarious existence in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. Some story collections have recurring characters, but other than thematic connections there is little that links these stories except for the town itself and a sweet pond (where some seagulls masquerade as ducks in order to be fed). Although Morris demonstrates a wide range of narrative techniques in these stories, what connects them is the strength of voice, humorous appreciation for the buffoonery of existence and a tender awareness of how we’re driven through life with a confused sense of desperation.

Given the relatively rural Welsh setting for these tales, it’s unsurprising that the stories primarily concern white characters for whom racial difference is something of a curiosity. A couple in one story find a connection over wishing they had a black friend. In another story a man’s sister suffering from a kind of mental break down makes friends with a Japanese woman who she practically smothers. The story ‘All the Boys’ features a group of men on a stag-do in Ireland who dress up as potatoes with the groom dragged up in Riverdance attire. Their crass exaggeration of national identity is so over the top it’s knowingly ridiculous, cringe-worthy and wholly believable – as are the persistent homophobic insinuations made about one of the friends who is overtly concerned about style and appearance when really it’s another more boisterously masculine man that is hiding his true sexuality. These representations of provincial characters show how they have a muddled attitude towards difference, but they still maintain an innate carefully-rendered humanity making them worthy of empathy rather than repulsion.

I always feel a deep sympathy with literature that deals with economic hardship so I appreciated how some of the stories dealt with characters who struggle with issues around employment. In particular, ‘Clap Hands’ features a single mother stuck in a system with frustratingly little chance of full time work and the story ‘How Sad, How Lovely” is narrated from the perspective of an unemployed man surviving on little food and fewer prospects. Morris gives a moving sense of the attendant feelings of low self esteem, defeatism and desperation that can come from being deprived of steady working lives. There is a sympathetic understanding that these are unique individuals who have been cornered out by circumstance and simply don’t fit into a system where they can thrive in the way that they should.

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  “this house, these rooms, this phone, these voices – you know they should mean more to you, but they don't. It's like the opposite of deja vu.” from '   
  
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  Fugue'

“this house, these rooms, this phone, these voices – you know they should mean more to you, but they don't. It's like the opposite of deja vu.” from 'Fugue'

A fascinating habit for many characters in these stories is their persistent flair for masquerade. A woman wears a Natalie Portman mask when entering into an affair with her neighbour. A young woman believes her parents to be aliens under their skin. A passing couple are dressed as a knight and maiden. There are the aforementioned gulls pretending to be ducks. It’s as if these characters in their desperation at the perceived limitations of their own lives seek to escape into other beings. In one story a character remarks that “there are times when I can't bear to be in this skin of mine, times when I get so low that the smallest demands seem impossible.” In frustration, many characters seek to shed their skin whether it’s masking themselves as someone else or plunging into situations outside their own experience. This includes having affairs, engaging in public wrestling matches with women or running off on a drunken, drug-fuelled binge during the holidays. The characters are trying to wriggle out of their own skin and claim a new identity.

The concluding story ‘Nos da’ is one of the most daring and poignant in the entire collection. It’s the only piece to break from reality to construct a place where life persists in another form after your initial life. Yet there is nothing ethereal about this space. It’s more of a workaday reality, but there is a wider and more solemn gap between experience and memory. Characters can peer in on their past by ordering edited videos or spy on loved ones from a past life in real time via paid-for video links. But, rather than being caught in the technical aspects of constructing this alternate reality, Morris cleverly slides into a fantastical realm to write meaningfully about our persistent attachment to what might have been and neglect towards available possibilities in life.

The diversity and range of voices on show in “We Don't Know What We're Doing” demonstrate how Thomas Morris is a unique and sensitive writer with a keen sense of the absurd. This exciting, funny and oftentimes dark collection of stories was a pleasure to read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesThomas Morris