by Heidi James / Kay Sexton / Lucy Fry
(Apis Books)

This short story collection encapsulates all that is great, and all that is frustrating, about the short story.The first story is The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James, and from the start I found myself exactly that - mesmerised.  The evocative language conjures up the enthralling world of Nicola, a young girl who stopped talking at the age of four, desperate to contain the secrets her mother made her promise never to tell.  She believes she is the only one who knows her mother is really a wolf in lady’s skin, and the responsibility of this secret world bears constantly down upon her.

“I didn’t know why Mother told lies - probably because I was not a good girl…But if I was silent for long enough, maybe I would fade away like my voice, or perhaps I’d grow big enough to fit my mother’s hole for me.”

This story masterfully contrasts the magic of a child’s imagination with the secrets of an adult reality, using fantastical descriptions you will want to read twice and savour.  It’s a short story that’s almost like an indulgent gift, wrapped up in a neat ending, and tied with beautiful ribbons of words.

Smokin’ the Queen by Kay Sexton, on the other hand, belies the limitations of the short story.  It hints at big themes - drug addiction, religion, music as a saving grace - but does not manage to develop them to a great extent.  The main character, a black DJ and recovering drug addict named Darius, travels across England after the death of an old music maestro to deliver a prized cello to the musician’s old school.  Deciding to remain in the West Country while the old man’s house in London, which Darius has inherited, is cleaned out by the local pastor and his team, Darius gets involved with a strange bunch of people that includes the ‘bewitching’ Mel.  Despite the sufficient wage he receives for manual labour, and the allegedly friendly people who keep him company, Darius slips further under Mel’s control, until he is forced to take drastic measures to save himself.  At times disappointingly restrained, the writing nevertheless contains the odd glimmer of insight:

“If you were black and skinny you were a drug addict, black and fat you were a layabout.  Black and ugly?  A mugger.  Black and fine-looking?  A pimp.”

In this story, we are drawn with hope into Darius’s strange world, but are left slightly disappointed by so many things about the protagonist that remain unexplored.

In The Clear by Lucy Fry describes an obsessive relationship that slowly smothers the narrator - who, interestingly, shares the author’s name - and sucks her into its depths.  The interior monologue is addictive, drawing the reader in, and demonstrating how the mind can often fall victim to the heart.  The intimacy this story displays eradicates all clichés, and it almost serves as a fascinating study into human behaviour in the face of tragedy, and reprieve.

“You’d think we’d have learnt by now, wouldn’t you.  That we never really know another person the way we think we do.”

Whilst the story may occasionally seem exaggerated and unrealistic, the inner workings of a depressed mind are engrossing.  Lucy Fry captures - and is captured by - love in all its pain and glory to a frightening, yet brilliant, degree.

This collection of two shorts stories and one novella is a delight to read.  Each story has a unique tone, but all have something to offer the reader; at the end of the day the confines of the short story are superseded by the nuggets of talent they bring.  And the best thing about each is that the story is in the telling, not the resolution, which makes them all the more pleasurable; I found myself willing them not to end.

© Rebecca Strong 2007

First published in Issue 3 of The Small Press Review, 2007

A Monk Jumped Over a Wall

16 of February 2009

by Jay Nussbaum (Toby Press)

Few authors can be credited with the achievement of writing a well-crafted novel about soup, but this is exactly what Jay Nussbaum achieves with his second novel.  The eponymous, mythical soup in question, served at Oriental restaurants, gets it name from the tale about a monk who, from the confines of his monastery, could smell the delicious soup being created for a nearby rich man, and found the aroma so irresistible that he renounced his vows and jumped over the wall of the monastery just to get a taste.  It’s the old ‘grass is greener…’ dilemma: was the monk foolish, or did he do the right thing?  Could he ever have been happy in the monastery once he had smelled the soup, or did he sacrifice everything of value on a whim?

This novel takes the above story and places it in a contemporary setting.  The start of the novel throws us right into the thankless world of JJ, a trainee lawyer whose blood-sucking firm is out to make lots of money at the expense of a conscience.  JJ finds that his career increasingly conflicts with his ethics, but continues to work hard in the hope of qualifying as a lawyer and gaining the validation he’s been seeking ever since his abusive father -also a lawyer - told him he would amount to nothing.  Nussbaum uses wonderful truisms to illustrate the narrative, for example, in this quotation about JJ’s otherwise heartless boss:

“Carter Boston once told me he’d shed genuine tears the day he heard the news about the World Trade Towers.  But the people who died in those buildings were the same ones we cut off in traffic every day.  They were the people we dismiss when our legs outrun theirs and win us the only taxi on a rainy night…Why do we mourn their deaths but care so little about their lives?”

Three days before JJ is due for a big raise, a chance encounter with a couple of the firm’s ‘victims’ leads JJ to make a vital decision, and the consequences spiral.  The novel then cleverly flits between ensuing events and flashbacks to JJ’s university days, when he befriends a prominent professor who is to have a profound effect on his life.

Although fictitious enough to avoid being a ’self-help’ book, Nussbaum has nevertheless managed to create a work that raises important points about remaining true to yourself whilst attempting to please those who care about you.  As JJ says, “I live my life at the mercy and whim of everyone who matters to me.” The relationships JJ has with his family - his mother whom, more than anyone else, he looks to for praise, and his younger brother, Leo - are touching and poignant, and moments of humour are carefully juxtaposed with descriptions of hard times.  JJ is a character with whom the reader cannot help but sympathise and, having gained our trust, the reader is both taken in and fooled by the protagonist who may seem flaky but, in the end, is anything but.  I found myself rooting for JJ and his rebellion against the system, because he has the courage to rock the boat where so often we all choose to play it safe.

Another feat on Nussbaum’s part is to intertwine the two themes of law and martial arts.  This unusual espousal seems strange at first - for a reader unfamiliar with karate, long descriptions of varying kicks and punches can seem somewhat tedious - but once the rigours of the study of law and the practice of karate (and indeed, vice versa) have been introduced, they combine to add another dimension to a protagonist struggling to achieve greatness in all areas of life.  Throw in a bit of philosophy, and a somewhat sadistic sensei (master) we are brought nicely back to the idea of the soup: how can we get past external influences and listen to our inner voice?  Interestingly, the blurb at the back of the books states that Nussbaum is a lawyer who previously taught Eastern philosophy and martial arts at Cornell University in the USA, which leads me to wonder just how much this story might be a reflection of the author’s own life - especially as Nussbaum’s acknowledgements reveal the book was twenty years in the making.

The female characters in the novel seem to be the only ones through which emotions are really expressed.  JJ pines after girlfriends, is tender towards his mother, and only witnesses his favourite professor’s caring side through conversations with his wife.  At times the relationships can seem clichéd or predictable (such as the initially ‘no-strings-attached’ dalliances JJ has with a female roommate), but this is balanced by the ongoing uncertainty of events posed at the very beginning and only resolved towards the end.  The reader is kept in suspense, and by painting a complex picture of JJ’s dilemmas, Nussbaum manages to cleverly distract us from an outcome we realise was meant to be.

© Rebecca Strong 2007

First published in Issue 3 of The Small Press Review, 2007

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