shining the spotlight on short story collections
Parthian Books, 2013
‘I couldn’t help staring at her, the way her labia minora resembled a mouth turned on its side, and then, between the lips, something solid: an orange quarter, peel-side facing out. A baby’s head. She was crowning.’ (Hard as Nails)
Welsh writer Rachel Trezise writes short stories, novels, memoir, radio plays and for theatre but, she says, short stories are her passion. In interview she has said: ‘A novel is like a bonfire. You have to drag a lot of wood around. But a short story is a firework. You get an idea and you just have to light the wick.’
Her first novel, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, published when she was just 22 (she started writing it at 17), was a semi-autobiographical novel that featured the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather and also her mother’s alcoholism. It received wide critical acclaim and was selected by the Orange Prize jury for the Orange Futures list which highlighted outstanding works by the best young women writers. She went on to win the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize in 2006 (worth £60,000) for her first short fiction collection Fresh Apples. The themes explored in both of these books – sex, drug-taking, abuse, unemployment, poverty – would become the hallmarks of Trezise’s edgy, finger-on-the-button prose.
This collection’s title, Cosmic Latte, is a name scientists have assigned to the average colour of the universe, though in the book it is a shade of nail varnish. Trezise has been working on this book for about six years, dipping in and out of it between other projects. The territory is similar to what readers have come to expect from Trezise – failing sex, forbidden sex, sex as passport, illegal activities, drugs, heavy drinking, smuggling etc. – but this time we have mostly left behind the Welsh Valleys of Trezise’s earlier work to travel to the Czech Republic, Israel, Minneapolis, Spain, Germany, LA and New York. Trezise likes to document communities and insularity and she does it well no matter where those communities exist. In this book she is mostly dealing with those who have been displaced. In the story The Prayer for Eggs a rabbi says to the main character, Levi: ‘How can we recognise ourselves if we don’t look outside?’ That is what Rachel Trezise does in Cosmic Latte; she takes immigration and leave-taking as her theme and explores it from historical and contemporary perspectives.
Trezise has said, in interview about this collection of 11 stories, ‘I don’t want to be seen as a Welsh writer, I just want to be seen as a writer.’ But she has also said, ‘…my voice, that of a Welsh working class woman, is rare in literary fiction and so needs to be utilised in order to help balance the largely male and middle class world of publishing.’
Neither, at 34, does she accept the label ‘young writer’ anymore. Trezise is growing up and she expects her audience to accept that and let her be; to grow along with her. She has long been the controversial young writer who spotlights the drugs and sex that dominates the lives of the young in the Rhondda Valley, but she is ready to move on and she does that deftly with this book. Her themes are similar in this latest collection – she loves exposing the underbelly of whatever place she writes about – and she also maintains her trademark subtle, black humour.
In The Prayer for Eggs, Levi, a teenage Jew from Brooklyn arrives at a reform school in Tel Aviv – he has been caught masturbating with Hustler and sent away to be ‘cured’. On the drive from the airport to the school he is distracted by scantily clad women, tattooed skin and vending machines that dispense porn on DVD. Levi is hungry for sex and, not long after he arrives, he gets it from a silent, crazed woman in the grounds of the reform school. So the place that was supposed to redeem him actually corrupts him more. Trezise writes difficult scenes with verve and compassion. During the Hustler scene she writes: ‘He gasped; an age old gust of air that seemed to have been trapped in his lungs since birth, his heartbeat, a hammer on cloth.’
Trezise is skilful at introducing gleeful undercurrents; after Levi is caught with the magazine, he is further caught eating marshmallows by his father, who calls them ‘the flesh of pigs’, and that is the last straw; the boy is offered a choice, ‘death or reform school’. More humour is milked when Levi sends the wrong fax to the Wailing Wall, asking not for wellness for his Grandmother, as requested, but for sex for himself.
Another stand-out story is Hard as Nails, about 41 year old Joanna, a volatile nail bar owner in Tonypandy in Wales who hates competition (from other beauty salons). Trezise excels at depicting this kind of unpredictable, angry woman who is half-mad, half-comical, but wholly scary. In her 2010 novel Sixteen Shades of Crazy there was a memorably bitchy and pathologically selfish hairdresser called Rhiannon who was, like Joanna here, both funny and nasty. Joanna sweeps herself and her staff off to Benidorm for a holiday, not realising that her niece Seren, who works for her, is about to have a baby.
The birth is described brilliantly; it is an unexpected event for all concerned and the narrator finds Seren giving birth on the floor of the holiday apartment. ‘I couldn’t help staring at her, the way her labia minora resembled a mouth turned on its side, and then, between the lips, something solid: an orange quarter, peel-side facing out. A baby’s head. She was crowning.’
In Desire Lines, narrator Ryan is a broke musician who travels from Missouri to LA to see Jess, an out-of-his-league sorority girl from his hometown. The previous year he got her pregnant and she had an abortion, but she has, clearly, moved on. She treats him with disdain when she bumps into him as she is celebrating with her new classy friends. He, meanwhile, befriends a dwarf drug dealer called Cherry. They get high and end up in bed together, a scene witnessed by a rather confused Jess.
Ryan’s mother is ‘half brain dead, confined to an electric wheelchair’, and maybe this is why he is drawn to, and understands, people like Cherry who don’t conform to physical norms. Still he chases Jess but the reader knows he is entirely out of luck there and feels relief for him.
Trezise often touches on disability/special needs. In Hard as Nails Joanna’s son is sixteen but has a mental age of eleven and wears a colander on his head with which he communicates with Britney Spears. The title story in Trezise’s first collection Fresh Apples features a girl with cerebral palsy who is abused by an older boy.
Two of the stories in the collection are set in Ireland – Trezise went to university in Limerick for a year – and she chooses Limerick as one character’s hometown. Loosie gets caught up acting as a runner for the notorious, real-life McCarthy-Dundon gang and naturally this does not end well. There are some mild problems with Irish dialect in this and the other story set in Ireland, The Blue Ruin Café, for example ‘feller’ for ‘fella’, tagging the word ‘so’ where an Irish person would not, and ‘high school’ for ‘secondary school’ – but, overall, there is a real sense of menace around the gang and inevitable failure around Loosie himself.
Another story I thoroughly enjoyed was Punctuation, which has a different tone to many of the others. It is a quiet, melancholic story about Silke, a young woman in early 1960s East Berlin. She is contained and self-serving – a cool fish – but somehow also sympathetic. The reader is never really sure if Silke is just using her older, American fiancé Michael, because she seems to be still in love with Lars, her ex. The Berlin wall is being erected and Michael devises a plan to get Silke out of East Berlin using his sister’s passport. Silke goes, leaving behind her family, including her pregnant sister who also has a young child, who cannot get back over to the West and her husband. Before Silke leaves she has to get her hair dyed blonde, in order to look something like Michael’s sister – and it turns out that the hairdresser, Ulla, is Lars’s sister. She kisses Ulla and says, ‘For your brother.’
Cosmic Latte is a varied collection, in the vein of Nam Le’s The Boat or Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall. For the short story fan this can be a relief. There is nothing more boring than reading a collection where the same story is told 11 different ways, which is a disease many collections suffer from. Trezise very much speaks for and about her generation; she is honest, funny, perceptive and fresh. This book is a great read for those who like the dirtier, seedier, harder side of youth culture, as played out in literary fiction, but who also enjoy historical stories and like to travel widely as they read. Cosmic Latte is another top-notch book from a first-class writer.
Read a story by this author on her website
About the reviewer: Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012; The Irish Times said of it: ‘Ní Chonchúir’s precisely made but deliciously sensual stories mark her as a carrier of Edna O’Brien’s flame.’ Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner and ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times. Nuala’s second novel will be published in 2014. A chapbook of short-shorts/flash appears from Tower Press in the USA in Sep. 2013.