shining the spotlight on short story collections
Press 53, 2013
“Looking back, he sees it now. Twirling was Dani’s escape, and Rosie a twirler, too, with him. Twins, they twirled together. Two as one, coltish, early…Holding hands to spin together, faster, faster. Tandem spinning. Spinning till your hands broke apart and you staggered around, drunk with the swirl in your ears.“
This is a cracking collection, by turns lyrical, gritty, warm, funny, frightening and eccentric. Mary Akers‘ imagination is given full flight, from a historical story with just the suggestion of a ghost (The House of Refuge), through to a devastated future world of plagues and cults (Waste Island), by way of marital infidelity (Bones of an Inland Sea), murder (Viewing Medusa) and sex change (What Lies Beneath). Through it all flows the sea, wrecking, swamping, hiding, drowning and beguiling, and alongside the sea the various generations and pairings and half- and step-siblings of the Quinn tribe observe and engage and influence and are in their turn influenced and overwhelmed by and make their livings from the ocean and its inhabitants. Across many of the stories runs the dirty finger print of America’s defence policy and concomitant nuclear fallout, from Quinn witnessing the A bomb tests at Bikini Atoll to the Marshall Islanders rehomed to make way for the same nuclear tests, but riddled now with cancers. (Like Snow, Only Grayer)
Akers does not judge her characters, and as each one gets their opportunity to speak up, offering us new perspectives on their role in this complex family tangle, or giving feedback on someone we have already met, we slowly piece together the relationships and connections, and what might be the truth about the prom and Rosie’s lack of chaperone (Treasures Few have ever Seen), or how come Dani so desperately wants to be a boy (¡Vieques!), or whether Jack is quite the loser he seems (Comfortably Numb, and Collateral Damage), or what it is that makes Andrea tick (Beyond the Strandline, and Madame Trousseau). We watch Quinn’s children grow in snatches, and their children, and their children’s children, as each new wave slaps up the beach to whet our interest and add another layer of understanding.
The back cover quotes Andrea Barrett describing the stories as entwined branches of a coral reef. Akers does not waste words, she builds her often complex sentences into little rafts of meaning and elucidation, everything she says counts and builds, slowly, but with assurance. Each story stands alone, and each story adds to the others. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but I found myself turning from one story to the next in eager anticipation of what Akers would come up with next, at the same time as wallowing in the experience of tsunamis (Christmas in Phuket) and deserts, the disasters and the mundane, near Armageddon on one hand, and the private wrecking of a life symbolised by the packing away of useless belongings (Who Owns the Moon) on the other. In the final story the characters are stripped of even their names; it ought to be ridiculous, it could be over the top, but it isn’t.
I have one quibble with this book, which is the cover: don’t judge the book by it. Ackers is a mistress of the short story. I foresee a great many awards. Right: I’m off to buy her other books.
About the reviewer: Cherry Potts is the author of two short story collections, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and the editor/ co-editor for Arachne Press of several anthologies: Lovers’ Lies, Stations, Weird Lies and London Lies.