Attrib. and other stories, Eley Williams

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It has been a very long time since I woke up early to finish reading something. To put this in context, I am a teacher who is six months pregnant in the second week of the school holidays; early should not be in my vocabulary. It is then, testament to this stunning debut collection from Eley Williams that I was propped up in bed just after seven yesterday morning (awoken admittedly by husband, duly departing for his commute), tea in one hand, Attrib. and other stories in the other.

To my mind, this is all the more impressive given that it is a collection of stories rather than a singular page-turning narrative. There is a coherence and a commonality to these tales that make them compelling as a body. It is hard to identify stand-out stories because the texture of the book altogether is so fluent and careful in construction. The stories are patterned with images of colour, wildlife, sounds and an overarching concern with the difficulty and problems of language in communicating meaning and connection. They are at once unified and various.

The stories are in some ways very different, from a beached whale to the tussle of the tube to kissing (or failing to kiss) in an art gallery; Williams shifts time and place with a deftness that seems effortless. The fluidity of the prose makes these movements natural, they ripple into one another like the ebb and flow of the first person that dominates the majority of these stories. The ‘I’ ever-circling back to ‘you’ with unfazed depth of affection and feeling. To say it is a collection suffused with love feels cheap, it is suffused with love yes but with all that word connotes too, everything that goes with it: the joy and difficulty of relationships, the closeness and intimacy as well as the gaps and the near-misses.

There is much that is special about these stories, not least the confidence and clarity of Williams’ own voice. She is playful too, especially in her use and consideration of language. One of my favourite sections is in the opening story, ‘The Alphabet’ in which the narrator offers their own visual interpretation of each letter, as a child’s poster might, and:

U comes as a grin, grossly extended, or an empty jar – if there were forty we would be ready for fairyland thieves, and because you ruin things with beautiful practicality let’s line up an amphora with the lip smashed clean away by vandals: V. Two such amphorae: W. The next letter marks the spot, a kiss or something like the waiter’s brace-suspenders against his fresh white shirt-back: X

The opening story makes her concern with frustrated expression and interpretation explicit in exploring the dissociative effects of aphasia and the diminution of expressive power that such a loss of language leads to. I am not ashamed to say it made me cry (though the hormones may have lent a helping hand). The text is littered with unusual words and definitions that urge close examination of each, often very brief, moment of experience as she holds it up to the light.

All this makes it sound like hard work but it isn’t. It is clear and precise and, in being so, illustrates the limitations and frustrations of communication between people. Her characters are isolated but beautiful in their isolation and their efforts to break from it. Fittingly, to justly describe Williams’ prose is tricky: words like lyrical and poetic don’t seem to apply. They feel outdated. The fluency and rhythm they evoke have been updated to include paint swatches and sound effects; it feels fresh and expansive. It is tempting to use the word raw to convey emotional depth but this would suggest something unpolished where Williams is meticulous.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was at university with Eley briefly and though we have not stayed in touch with any regularity, I have always liked her (yup, she’s lovely and talented). I say this, not in some sad effort to claim paltry connection to a rising star but lest any of you realise this and think it’s just me bigging up an old friend. As such, I feel bound to point out that I am not the only one who thinks she has produced something rather wonderful. Attrib. and other stories was fabulously reviewed in The Guardian and has been shortlisted for Best Short Story Collection at the Saboteur Awards. Joanna Walsh wrote in Granta that, “There’s no one working in the UK quite like her.” As far as I can tell, she is right.

As I sit here, gushing away, I realise that reading this book is making me (well let’s face it, it’s probably a work in progress) a better writer. I do not want to put a word out of place here, nor ever again.

Bravo, Eley. Bravo.

 

The Lighthouse

At the risk of a) sounding totally obsessed with Salt publishing and b) jumping on an already rapidly moving bandwagon I have just finished reading The Lighthouse. Alison Moore’s debut novel was Booker shortlisted and I can only gush at how deserving it is of such an accolade. It is a deeply accomplished, deeply unsettling novel that took me only three days to read. ‘Ah, but it’s quite short,’ I hear you cry, ‘that’s no real achievement/recommendation’. Not to you real-worlders perhaps but to the full-time teacher as this near-endless term begins to wane, it is near-miraculous.

The Lighthouse follows the enigmatically named Futh – is it his surname? His first name? Or is he to be truly understood as an unwitting extension of his father, Mr Futh the chemistry teacher. The parallels between Futh and his father are uncomfortable for the reader, almost scored into the skin of the novel; they find their way into the pit of your stomach early on and sit there, growing heavier as you read. Perhaps it is just my Eliot-addled mind talking but Futh seems to me to be Prufockian in many ways: not just the thinning hair but the way he excavates present experience through memory and the way his memories are of personal stasis and indecision. His mother leaves, his father hits him; Futh remains, clinging to familiar things and objects as a child. As an adult, he still carries the silver lighthouse that belonged (albeit not rightfully) to his mother but now he clings to memories too with the same heart-breaking tenacity, replaying them over and over for the reader in increasing levels of detail. As he walks in a circle through Germany, you can’t help but feel that he walked in a circle by going to Germany, just as by marrying Angela.

I realise this may all sound a bit cryptic but the extraordinary interwoveness of this novel is what lends it such sad, real beauty. The prose is patterned with symbols and associations that connect Futh’s life; the same is true of Ester, hostess at the hotel he first visits and equally trapped by her memories and her experiences. Both characters are unwittingly self-destructive in their disconnectedness from both their lives and the worlds around them; so mired in their pasts they are unable to plot a new course: there is no real lighthouse to guide them safely past the rocks. Indeed, the novel’s very completeness only serves to isolate the protagonists further, rendering their loneliness all the more devastating. They are connected for the reader by the compulsive rhythm and movement of the text but in no way do they benefit from this connection; they remain utterly alone in the damage they have sustained.

It is a superb novel, trading in ambiguity that permeates the text in association and suggestion. Hypnotic, devastating and almost unbearably compulsive once you pick it up, it is literally a must-read. Fan.bloody.tastic.