shining the spotlight on short story collections
Liberties Press, 2014
“The taste of tobacco filled his mouth and made it water. Jim spat, and he felt ready for the sea again. You had to be ready for the sea because, if not, then the sea would be ready for you.”
Search online for images of Roaring Water Bay in West Cork and you will most likely find scenes of calm blue seas. And yet the sea can turn treacherous on the finest of days, and people find themselves literally out of their element. So it is in Lane Ashfeldt’s finely researched and artfully told stories. The sea runs through this debut collection, though not always overtly or in ways we might expect.
The stories are arranged under three headings, which provide useful navigational pointers. Three of the first four, under the sub-heading Roaring Water, tell of occasions when the power of the sea threatens to destroy people and their relationships. The Boat Trip and SaltWater form a pair linked by Nola, who appears in the first on her thirteenth birthday, which she declares “the worst birthday ever: not even a cake.” The day brings a trauma far worse, but by the time of SaltWater, Nola has a daughter of her own, for whom she faces up to the fear born on that awful day.
I wondered if the stories would continue in this satisfying vein, but after the sparse 107 words of the story of Auntie Rose we are taken to a wild night on Canvey Island. In Dancing on Canvey there is to be a dance to celebrate the opening of the war memorial hall. Ten-year-old Gwynn says:
I ask Mam isn’t it odd to hold a dance to remember the dead? Like dancing on a grave.
And her mother tells her there were lots of parties during the war:
Folks had to keep their spirits up. For all they knew, each night could be their last.
Once again, the words foreshadow horrors to come, but the thrust of these stories is not as simple as the overwhelming power of the sea versus the powerlessness of human beings; Ashfeldt conveys the complexities of ordinary people’s lives with vivacity and great skill. In the second section Slack Water, Freshwater Habitat is set against a backdrop of the Fáil Stone near Navan where the kings of old Ireland were crowned. The sea is not close; Conleth tells his Japanese girlfriend who doesn’t eat fish that if they were to move back to Navan he could go freshwater fishing. It doesn’t sound auspicious, but the subtleties of their relationship are shown like the swift darting of fish through water.
In these stories there are journeys across water, tales of life on islands and the tides of life which bring us together and, as in Neap Tide, separate us again, perhaps through just a small realisation.
In the third section of the collection, Rising Sea Level, Ashfeldt cranks up the tension with tales of risk-taking. The hazards of surfing are shown in parallel with the emotional turmoil in people’s lives in Pole House and also, wonderfully well, in the long short story which draws the collection to a close, Outer Banks Riptide. In this story teenager Jude wants to stay in a remote beach house where:
… when she was fourteen years old she saw the ocean lit up like neon, radiant. White waves scattered diamonds over a black velvet beach.
Jude gets her wish to see the phosphorescence again. It is at a cost, but she is young and she moves on. So it is with many of Ashfeldt’s characters. Tragedy happens, but many lives continue and some are, remarkably, re-energised by the experiences they endure. In Sound Waves this is the case for Livi’s daughter Carlita, who hasn’t played guitar for a long time. Then they go to a music festival. Crossing the water on the way back something shocking happens. It comes as one of life’s curveballs, and things change for Carlita. Sound Waves was included in Parthian’s Rarebit: New Welsh Fiction (2014), and is for me one of the stand-out stories in that collection.
The sea is something of which we usually see only the surface, and the more I thought about these stories the more I saw the way the sea is portrayed in them as acting as a metaphor for our human relationships, of how we struggle with uncertainty and the unknown, but carry on somehow. Perhaps we are descended from fish, indeed perhaps, as one story suggests, that remains a potent element in human life.
If this sounds a little vague and esoteric, be assured that all thirteen of the stories in Saltwater are firmly located in real locations in our world, places of real-life drama and tension. On the Greek island of Thira in God Mode, Anna takes her visitor out in a small boat into the bay where the people of the lost city of Atlantis “were living right in the mouth of a volcano.” Trapped in a toppled building in the Haiti earthquake in Catching the Tap-Tap to Cayes de Jacmel, Lucien pictures himself leaving the “ugly-beautiful city” where the hustle is “like a hundred market days jammed together.” And always, near or far, islands and the surrounding sea. In Airside, Maycel’s family have moved from Mauritius to Crawley. She says England is her second island. Her Dad is exiled from Diego Garcia and says England is his third island:
Dad still finds it hard to sleep without hearing the waves. I told him the cars at night sound a bit like waves, but he just looked at me, sad.
Lane Ashfeldt does not deal in generalities, but in precise story-telling and in a voice which is very much her own.
Read a story from this collection at Microliterature
About the author: Lane Ashfeldt‘s short fiction has been published in The Guardian, Southword Journal, The London Magazine, Identity Theory and Aesthetica. Dancing on Canvey won the Fish Short Histories Prize and Catching the Tap-Tap to Cayes de Jacmel the Global Short Story Prize; both are in SaltWater, her first collection.
About the reviewer: Cath Barton is Literature Editor of Celtic Family Magazine and writes regularly for Wales Arts Review. Recent acceptances of her short fiction include A Sticky End for inclusion in Eating My Words, the 2014 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology, and The Last Laugh for Twisted Tales 2014 from Raging Aardvark Publishing.