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A Review: He Wants, Alison Moore

he wants

 

Retired teacher Lewis Sullivan always imagined living by the sea.

He lives instead in the Midlands village in which he was born. His grown-up daughter visits every day, bringing soup. He does not want soup. He frequents his second-favourite pub, where he can get half a shandy, a speciality sausage and a bit of company.

When a childhood friend appears on the scene, Lewis finds his life and comfortable routine shaken up.

In the wake of Moore’s award-winning first novel, The Lighthouse, and her debut short story collection, The Pre-War House (which I reviewed here), my expectations were high and this book did not disappoint. With Moore’s typically sparse plot, her attention to the minute detail of everyday occurrences, and her use of quiet tension, I sunk into this and did not resurface until I reached the end. At 182 pages, it is a short novel but needs no further chapters; its impact lies, in part, in its brevity and in its silences.

I appreciated John Oakey’s clever cover design, and the irony of the brightness of the yellow against the protagonist’s rather dull existence. It is possible that the colour yellow is scattered throughout the text for this very reason. Lewis Sullivan’s reserve and quiet desperation is painful at times, but he also resists change in the same way that a child might stamp his feet. Although, Lewis’s determination to keep a routine existence is done quietly and without a fuss. His occasional need to break out or to experience something new, something shocking, touches on the natural curiosity in all of us, and reminds us of the idea that there is always more beyond the borders of our existences. There is something inherently Freudian about the focus on Lewis’s loss, his inhibition and self-absorption.

Moore’s skill lies in lulling the reader into a comfortable, but temporary, sense of experiencing the ordinary, before she shocks the reader with an aggressive and threatening outside force through language which makes the character feel uncomfortable, or a dry expression and a sense of foreboding. Without giving away the ending, the whole story builds up to an unexpected climax, leaving you replaying the story to see where the clues may have been buried in the pages, if at all. Lewis Sullivan’s routine existence, with daily visits from a daughter with whom he shows no real connection, is shaken up when his old pal, Sydney, resurfaces, causing unexpected disruption to Lewis’s days. The fact that Sydney is also a far-flung destination is not lost on the attentive reader.

The book title is followed through with chapter headings beginning with an ominous, He does not want…, He wants…, or He wanted to… There is a combined sense of anticipation, regret, fear and uncertainly in each chapter – with much of the tension rising from what is left unsaid, in the unspoken sentences – in as much as his life is made up of the things he did not do and the places he did not visit. And then there is the matter of the dog who is weaved through the pages, a dog whose ownership is unclear. At one point we find ourselves in the company of the two characters and the dog in the kitchen, and it is unclear for a while to whom both the dog and the kitchen belong: “The man, who has been looking at him, looks at him some more and then says, ‘Your house?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Lewis. ‘You are in my house. This is my kitchen. You are sitting in my wife’s chair at my kitchen table. I thought for a moment that this was my dog.'” In the following lines Lewis wonders if he is being burgled. I can’t help thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as we wonder about the intruder. There is an almost surreal element to the book, a sense of other-worldliness.

The themes of religion and eternity are well expressed with their uncertainties and extremes, in particular in the chapter,  He wants to fly, where we are drawn back in time to Lewis’s father taking him to see Billy Graham in Manchester at the age of eighteen. His concerns about baptism focus on whether or not a person would need to be clothed or naked, and whether it would require a clean pair of pants. He lists some of the Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible, with which many are familiar, in a way that may threaten to close his life in even further.

The narrative is beautifully layered, with generational links and well-planned time frame jumps. So many elements of the book feel familiar, yet much is also unexpected. Themes of loneliness, memory and loss are unfolded with a deep originality. Lewis is, at times, an unreliable narrator and I sense that Moore enjoys this element of surprise. This book is not for those who want a fast paced thriller, but there are dark aspects to He Wants and an intensity of emotion that will pull you in until the last page.

I’m off to buy myself a new suit and travel the world!


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#bookaday Have more than one copy: The Lighthouse

lighthouse

 

I have two paperback copies and a kindle download. This gives you an idea of how much I enjoyed it. The doubling up of the paperbacks is down to a joyful discounted purchase of the Booker shortlisted books  in 2012. I have yet to read Wolf Hall.

The lighthouse caught, and held, my attention partly because of its sadness and for the emptiness of the main character. His life has fallen apart around him and he sets out on a journey, a walking trip to Germany. It is a journey that appears to mirror his own sense of a loss of direction. The abandonment of his mother, and the disappointment of his ex-wife and father, garner sympathy from the reader through Moore’s cleverly crafted narrative. A chilling and suspenseful read. So much emotion is conveyed through very scant explanation.

I have subsequently read her more recent short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. I reviewed the collection in previous post.


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Book Review: The Pre-War House and Other Stories

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I have eagerly awaited the publication of Alison Moore’s debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. As regular blog readers know, I am an advocate for short fiction and I read and write as much of it as time allows. It’s a real joy to be able to review this collection of short stories.  I was kindly given an advanced copy by Salt Publishing, for which I am very grateful. The Lighthouse, Moore’s debut novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and I read it in one sitting. I hoped for the same emotional tension, her attention to detail, and a surprising climax in her short stories, and this collection did not disappoint.

The short stories in Pre-War House are drawn from a selection of magazine and anthology publications over a period of twelve years, alongside new and recently published work. Moore’s stories have been shortlisted for more than a dozen different awards (see below) including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2013 for this collection.

The stories are evocative and often sinister, honing in on the details of everyday life with extraordinary insight into human nature and the many fears, often unspoken. Moore has a great sense of control over her prose, her language is understated and therein lies the power of her writing. She uses words which evoke a sense danger, of loss or unease.

I had previously read When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, and reading it again provided the same sense of threat and menace through the tightly written sentences as they wound their way towards an uneasy ending. There is something inherently satisfying in reading a story of this quality which makes you catch your breath as you turn the pages.

Overnight Stop left me gripping my seat as I read in disbelief. The plot lends itself to a novel length prose and this is no mean feat for a short story. This piece is a perfect example of Moore’s ability to play with your emotions and draw you in to the scene with frightening reality.

Seclusion lulls you into a false sense of security before packing a punch towards the end. The insight into one life is portrayed with telescopic accuracy.

Sleeping Under the Stars brings in details of Stargazy Pie, Liqourice laces and kirby grips with a layered story of the difficulties of fractured families. The ‘goosepimpled arms’ give a sense of foreboding, and words such as ‘queezy’ and ‘sickening’ provide a parallel for the emotional distress involved in the story.

Many of the themes centre around family, relationships, loss, and uncertainty. Some of the stories create a sense of claustrophobia as the characters become trapped in situations beyond their control. Each piece has its own unique style but the thread weaving through the collection is an intangible sense of anticipation. It is a delicious read and, having read some of the stories a few times, it is something I will keep going back to. A remarkable debut collection which comes highly recommended.

‘Overnight Stop’ (The Lampeter Review issue 7)
‘Sleeping Under the Stars’ (The Nottingham Short Story Anthology 2012)
‘A Small Window’ (The Warwick Review vol.6 no.4)
‘Jetsam’ (Ambit issue 211)
‘Seclusion’ (Paraxis volume 4)’If There’s Anything Left’ (The Yellow Room)
‘It Has Happened Before’ (Shadows & Tall Trees issue 4)
‘Trees in the Tarmac’ (The New Writer issue 112)
‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’ (The Screaming Book of Horror, 2012)
‘Small Animals’ (Nightjar Press, 2012)
‘The Yacht Man’ (The New Writer issue 111)
‘The Smell of the Slaughterhouse’ (The New Writer issue 111; Best British Short Stories 2013)
‘Glory Hole’ (The Lightship Anthology: 1)
‘The Egg’ (Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds, 2011)
‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ (Nightjar Press, 2010; Best British Short Stories 2011)
‘The Pre-War House’ (The New Writer issue 103)
‘Static’ (Manchester Fiction Prize 2009)
‘Monsoon Puddles’ (Quality Women’s Fiction issue 43)
‘Helicopter Jean’ (The New Writer issue 53)
‘Wink, Wink’ (Creative Writers’ Network magazine)
‘Humming and Pinging’ (Marches Literary Prize anthology 2000) 


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Hemmingway’s Tip Of The Iceberg: Omit What the Reader Knows

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If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon[1

This quote from Hemmingway’s, Death in the Afternoon, is a timely reminder that most of what the reader picks up from a really good piece of prose is submerged. Writers sometimes go to great lengths to make sure that the reader understands every detail and assumes a lack of understanding. Writing can, in this instance, lose it’s subtlety and and crush the flow of the words. You can feel what a good writer is implying without the words actually reaching the page. A good book is charged with these undercurrents and the reader can dig down and grasp emotions and ideas which are never actually written.

To give an example, yesterday I read the Costa Short Story Award winner Avril Joy’s beautiful piece, Millie and Bird. I won’t give anything away but the key theme is always implied, never stated, and deftly written in the hands of a writer who knows her craft. Her story is both lyrical and compelling. Those of you who have been following know that I am currently immersed in short stories (both reading and writing) and I was particularly struck by this one. A well deserving winner, I would say.

Alison Moore’s, The Lighthouse, also follows a strong theme of rejection and loneliness without it ever being stated. The reader is swept away by the desperation of the protagonist’s situations in both his past and present.

I particularly like Hemmingway’s description of the dignity of an iceberg’s movement. Remembering that those critical seven eights of its mass are under water should serve as a warning not to push everything up to the surface or to write all the words into the frame of your picture.


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Short Story Writing

writing

I am in the thick of writing short stories and I really enjoy the punch that you can use to mould a high-impact piece of writing. Last night I read the new issue of Paraxis, a wonderful online publisher of short stories, and I was impressed by the range of prose delivered and the tension created in each short story. This current issue 04 is a publication of the works of both developing and established writers and the combination gels in a surprisingly smooth run of stories:

Seclusion

by Alison Moore

Looking out of Broken Windows
by Dan Powell

Saving Face
by Emma Seaman

The Rat-catcher
by Lorrie Hartshorn

Defacement
by Stuart Snelson

The House in the Woods
by Emily Cleaver

Dan Powell’s metaphorical cracked window panes were still on my mind this morning. The other stories had a similarly disturbing effect. Good writing, writing which lasts, leaves you feeling changed, it forces you to see the world through a different lens and nowhere more so than through a short piece of fiction.

My personal preference is for literary fiction, as that is what I immerse myself in when I read and write, but I was given Ian Rankin’s collection of short stories, Beggars Banquet, for Christmas. In a disturbing and gripping set of stories he covers stories of Edinburgh’s underworld to startling effect. It is important to read outside your genre and read widely, so my repertoire of books is expanding. There was an interesting review of Rankin’s collection on Amazon from a reader who does not usually read short stories who said it was like reading a whole novel in a short story.

This is the essence of the the short story. It should be a complete story in somewhere under 5,000 words. Many are a good deal shorter, but never lacking in impact, never leaving the reader wondering about the rest of the story, apart from to search for meaning and to think about where the characters have been and how they will be impacted by an event or a ending.

Fish Publishing, who publish anthologies of the works of international emerging writers and poets, describes the writing of short stories as being, ‘a glance at the miraculous. Joyce used a religious word. He called his stories ‘epiphanies’. A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That’s a good metaphor for a short story. Often, a good short story will be a little earthquake.’

In an Introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days & Other Stories,
Joseph O’Connor says this about the writers of this genre:

What kind of strange creature is a short story writer? I must confess that I don’t know. A high priest or priest of art? A wounded soul who can’t understand the real world and thus feels a need to re-invent it? A moralist? A Spinner of yarns? An entertainer? A prophet? Probably all of these things. Possibly none.

The single fact I can be sure about is this: writers are watchers. The one and only thing they have in common is an ability to look at the everyday world and be knocked out by it. Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.

In an Introduction to the 2003 Fish Anthology, Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories, Pat McCabe quotes Frank O’Connor in saying that the form is as close as you could get to the lyric poem:

Henry Thoreau said that it didn’t have to be long but it would take a long while if you wanted to make it short. What was he saying this about? About the form we know as the ‘short story’. Everyone over the years has had something to say on the subject. For V S Pritchett it was an athletic form. If you got a good start you could sprint to the end, unlike the nineteenth-century novel. For Frank O’Connor, it was the closest you could get to the lyric poem, in that the novel requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

Katherine Ann Porter wrote her stories in one sitting. Or so she said. But then writers say all sorts of things. Another thing that was said about the form – and I think it’s a good one – can be attributed to William Trevor. That it’s the ‘art of the glimpse’. Meaning that if the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story tends more towards impressionism. It is an explosion of truth and its strength ought to lie in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in, if not more.

As an aside – Just after I finished writing this post I discovered Charles May’s post on The Secret Life of the Short Story. In it, he discusses the work of  Alice Munro and William Trevor, two of the greatest short story writers in the world today. Munro has been compared to Chekhov. You can read a post on Chekhov’s short stories if you are interested.


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Short Stories and Flash Fiction

Having spent months editing Take Me to the Castle I have missed the writing process, which is what writers love. Editors scour written work for grammar, punctuation, style, consistency. Publishers focus on pulling a book together professionally and marketing it to readers. Writers love to craft novels and stories. I think we come unstuck when it is time to take a scalpel to the writing and cut out or change words, re-read, re-write, and change any inconsistencies. So I decided to take action and write some short stories and flash fiction. This has served two purposes – It has given me the opportunity to write in a shorter timescale than I would a whole novel, and it has sharpened my skills as a writer. I will keep you posted on the release of these. My aim is to publish an anthology in the future, with a collection of short stories and poems.

I have had some communication with the lovely Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She says that she began her journey into writing by writing short stories, and that it tightened her style and honed her craft. I had already read ‘When the Door Closed, It was Dark’ in The Best British Short Stories 2011 by Salt Publishing, and loved it. So I set to work on short story writing and have also written flash fiction, generally under 350 words. For the writer it teaches you to keep the essence of your story within limited boundaries, and for the reader it is a pleasure to read something which is short and intense – like a good espresso!

Before I get back to my coffee, I just want to leave you with an exclusive short story by Hilary Mantel, The Long QT. It is striking in so many ways. Let me know what you think.

What are your experiences with reading or writing short stories and flash fiction? Do you prefer these styles of writing to novel-length work or vice versa? Have your say and feel free to share any of your own reading or writing experiences with short stories or flash fiction.

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