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

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