shining the spotlight on short story collections
“She may not speak much but she knows EVERY WORD YOU SAY. Her mother said that. Kind of thing you say about spaniels. Biddable things. Pets. They sentimentalise. It’s easier than looking, REALLY LOOKING, seeing what there is to see.”
When I finished this powerful book, which collects together all the forty-two stories from both of Janice Galloway’s published collections, I felt as though these were stories unlike any I had ever read before. Of course, my task as a reviewer was then to re-read the book and try and explain why.
The first thing is the layout of Galloway’s stories, many of which are very short, only a few pages. She doesn’t use any speechmarks, and is not that keen on paragraph breaks, inserting blank lines – white space – instead. White space is stronger than a paragraph break, and I believe it’s done to keep the reader from falling into some kind of comfortable space. Active reading is what’s called for here.
What jumps out is Galloway’s use of CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, something I had never seen in a short story before. Yes, you may feel that the story is shouting at you, but I think this is the point. The quote above is taken from the story Someone Had To, and before you even begin to read the story, words and phrases jump out:
EVERY WORD YOU SAY
EVERY WORD YOU SAY
THANK YOU FOR TAKING ME WITH YOU UNCLE FRANK
It’s as if they are a hint of the story to come, or their own mini-story, but this is not gratuitous. The feeling of being shouted at adds another sensation to Galloway’s prose, it engages all your senses, including hearing. It’s something utterly unique. She uses Scottish dialect, spelling words the way they would sound, such as “mibby” for “maybe”, which gives these stories a strong sense of place.
The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations – be they cities, countries or other planets – Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.
For example, here is an extract from Where You Find It, a two-page story about a kiss:
He prises you apart like you’re in a dentist’s chair and you know you’re being kissed…You can feel the wet chord that keeps his tongue on stretching, pulling up from the soft veiny mass on the floor of his mouth, tightening to its limit like it might uproot. That chord is in there all the time, folded up like a fin or a stray slice of tissue left on a butcher’s tray.
The story continues in this vein (excuse the pun) which is both slightly gruesome but also utterly compelling. The dissection of the kissing process. In another story, Galloway takes something as “ordinary” as a visit to the hairdresser’s and imbues it with such menace, such otherworldliness:
On the left, the slatted muzzles of strung-up dryers grunt soundlessly behind two copper-coloured cans of spray. Net on a wire rope hides the misted window. On the right, four women ranged along the wallpaper stripes, frying. Under their electric drying hoods, wisps of lilac and silver stray down, making their faces pucker.
Galloway forces you to look at everything with new eyes. The dentist, the butcher (that one is particularly gruesome!) She rarely opens a story such that you are instantly aware of where you are, who this is, what’s going on. She makes you keep turning the pages to find out, and you want to. You can’t stop. Very often her titles provide vital information for the reader, both about what the story is “about” and how to read it, titles such as bisex and babysitting. There are stories that are told quite “straight” and there are those that are more dreamlike, more disturbing.
Most of these stories are not an easy read; I don’t imagine they are supposed to be a cheering experience. There are several of the later stories that left me deeply shaken. But there are moments of unexpected beauty (the sun coming out in After the Rain), love and humour, even in a story about an elderly couple planning suicide.
A volume of collected stories also gives a reader the chance to see how a writer has shifted, changed, over the years. Noticeable immediately is that all the titles of the second set of stories are lower case – and I don’t think this is trivial, given Galloway’s penchant for capital letters. This is an indication of different rules at play, or no rules at all. This is saying: Don’t take anything for granted.
Also, characters from earlier stories do return, and there is a feeling that many of these stories are set in the same place, not a fixed and existing city, but there is a sense of some kind of community here, some continuity between stories.
The earlier stories are very, very good, but many of the later ones are astonishing, clearly the work of a confident writer who has no compunction about making the reader work very hard. It is worth it. It is most definitely worth it.
Read a story from this collection in Galloway.1to1.org
About the reviewer: Tania Hershman‘s first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published in Sept 2008 by Salt Publishing, her second, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books.