shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, 2012
“The boy liked collecting. He liked the interrupted faces people had when they saw him, and the music and chat and smells of food leaking out their houses. He liked standing in the warm light that fell on him out of their doorways.”
Rogers’ debut collection contains twenty compassionate and beautifully written stories. She opens with Red Enters the Eye, a story about a young fashion designer who goes to Nigeria to teach a group of women in a refuge how to sew. On the way to the refuge Julie refuses to shut the car window and a child’s fingers squeeze into the gap: “pinky-brown with blunt, bitten nails, waving at her like the tentacles of an octopus.” Julie finds the rules at the refuge restrictive and she worries about patronizing the Nigerian women. She allows her sewing equipment to go missing: “It was worth losing a few bits and bobs, not to have to do that primary teacher thing of counting at the end of class.” Her refusal to adhere to the rules has a significant impact on the women she has come to help and the story marks a powerful opening to a collection full of interesting, flawed and sympathetic characters.
Rogers’ stories take place in Africa, France, England and the Caribbean. She is convincing in every location, from St. Thomas in The Disaster Equation to the kitchen sink in Conception, where a mother justifies the decision to lie to her daughter, concluding, “I wanted her to believe her conception was foursquare and planned for, the product of the sort of thing other people construct their lives on; commitment, vision, love.”
In Morphogenesis, Rogers examines a life committed to scientific discovery. She takes the reader inside the mind of Alan Turing in a series of snapshot glimpses of his existence. The science in this piece is beyond me but it doesn’t matter because Rogers’ language gives a strong sense of its symmetry and beauty:
Five petals equally spaced around the yellow centre; how does it know? How does it know to grow like that? And not dark and knobbly-secret like the heather? How does it know to grow its simple open face; how, when it is nothing but green mush in the stem, does it know to unfold in the same perfectly recognisable pattern, every time?
Turing ponders these things as a child and, later in the story, his theory is presented thus:
Morphogenesis. The budding and flowering of a shape from an indistinguishable mass of cells. Not by the hand of God, but by simple, mechanical reaction and diffusion of chemicals. Moving into the cells, flicking switches, as a man might enter his house and turn on lights.
Turing’s theory is gently held alongside his private life in an illuminating and sad moment when Rogers writes, “The law will not allow him to be the man his own cells tell him he is.”
Other characters are allowed the luxury of being themselves and some act with impunity. The Great Man in Kiss and Tell disrupts a writing retreat and boasts “simply and enthusiastically, like a child,” while the husband in The Tale of a Naked Man, pleads and cajoles his way through an elliptical, tall tale that, on ending, throws the reader right back to its beginning. In Lucky, Janine constructs a whole world around the few weeks she spent working in a doctors’ surgery, while in Saved Alice’s thoughts begin to unfurl as she dutifully unscrews an old bed.
My favourite story was the funny and sad Sports Leader, the tale of a dull, slow, boy who cleans windows. The boy enjoys collecting money in the evenings because he likes standing in the warm light of other people’s doorways. I felt like the boy as I read this collection; I liked the glimpses of other lives, the music of people’s words, the smells and sounds of places I’ve never visited, but most of all, I enjoyed basking in the warm light of these beautiful stories.
Listen to Jane Rogers reading a story from this collection in the Comma Press Storybank
About the reviewer: Carys Bray‘s first collection, Sweet Home, won the 2012 Scott Prize and is published by Salt. Carys teaches at Edge Hill University. She is working on a PhD and she is a co-editor at Paraxis.