shining the spotlight on short story collections
Used to Be
by Elizabeth Baines
Salt Publishing 2015
“I used to believe in plots, but they’re too insistent and simple; there’s no such thing as a single setting or a stable scenario, they’re always an author’s lie.”
It is not only in politics that there is never a single narrative. The same is true in all lives. We tell different stories to different people at different times. And to ourselves. This is the territory of Elizabeth Baines’ stories. The sub-title of the first section of this collection, What Was, What Is, suggests apparent certainties which are in fact illusory.
In Looking for the Castle, a woman takes a detour on the spur of the moment to visit a town where she lived as a child. There are new roads and new houses, and the ruined castle of her childhood memories is not where she expected it to be. The edgy second person narrative is a perfect choice for this story of what is only hinted at about the past, a childhood in which “There was no escape into a fairytale” when the girl and her sister arrived home late and had to face their father’s unnamed punishment. A few well-chosen words hint at the father’s own memories when, coming upon him unexpectedly, his daughter sees on his face “A look like a bruise.”
Clarrie and You carries the same kind of tension about the past. The question ‘why?’ resonates through this story of secrets and lies in a family. And the reason is that some things from the past are too painful to talk about. The end of the story is a superb metaphor for this:
You put down the phone and listened to the wren’s bubbling eruptions of sound. Such a very little bird, and such a huge song.
It is not true that the present is all we have; the ghosts of the past are ever-present too. A Matter of Light is written as a series of diary entries by a man who has spent his life “in the practical matters of trade”. The significance of this, and of the date, 1816, become clear only at the end of the story, when his guilt and remorse mean that he can no longer keep the ghosts of what was involved in his past ‘trade’ from his mind.
Elizabeth Baines is wide-ranging and imaginative in her scenarios for her stories – black hole theory in The Relentless Pull of Gravity and shades of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in That Turbulent Stillness. In each case she is examining the ways in which memories are part of our present. She does this in grand style in the title story of the collection, Used To Be. Two women are on their way to a film shoot. Sally, who is driving, is entertaining her passenger with tales about the time she spent a year in Lanzarote. She’s hyper, talking and driving fast, veering from one story to another. And as she does so, her friend, who is a writer, is thinking about her own stories:
And all the time, out of sequence, the images from my own life are flickering.
The writer starts constructing a story from what her friend is talking about, only to find out later that Sally’s story about Lanzarote was more complex than what she had first said.
The multiple possibilities of story-telling are similarly explored in the final story of this collection, Tides or How Stories Do or Don’t Get Told. This is told with a poetic lilt, and the incoming tide which the couple of the story watch is a superb metaphor for “the oncoming rush of all the possible stories.”
The other stories in the second section of the collection, What May Be, similarly explore alternative lives, realities and what ifs? The landscape of the Brontës appears again, here as the backdrop for a young teacher’s dilemmas in Where the Starlings Fly:
I thought of the Brontës. I thought of them stitching their longings into handmade books, inking their losses into heart-healing stories.
It is a cliché to talk of the past catching up with us, but Elizabeth Baines explores that theme in a skilfully under-stated way in The Choice Chamber. She reveals a lot in what she doesn’t say and this is a strength of her stories. Having said that, the story which in many ways I enjoyed the most in this collection, Possibility, is marred for me by an ending which is just a little too enigmatic. Up until the final paragraphs, I found the interwoven stories of three passengers on a train very engaging. Each one is in his or her own way ‘coping’, until this train journey alters everything. The pace of the story gathers like the speeding of the train and then ebbs as the aftermath of an accident plays out.
In What Do You Do If a woman faces a common dilemma – is she to take a stranger who asks her for help at face value or fear for her own safety? This is very much a story for our times.
Elizabeth Baines is a sure-footed writer, and for me (ironically!) nowhere better than in her story Falling. A woman slips on her heel at a party and falls. She is badly injured and reflects afterwards on how much worse it could have been had she fallen an inch to the right. She falls again behind a truck, which, had the driver jumped in at that moment, might have crushed her.
Life is a series of might-have-beens, near-misses and what ifs. This is a tremendous collection of stories. They do not seek to be didactic, but may nonetheless give many of us who read them cause to reflect on the choices we have made in our own lives, and to be more mindful of the options which open in front of us every day.
Link to Falling at East of the Web
About the author: Elizabeth Baines was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She has written plays for radio and stage, three novels, The Birth Machine, Body Cuts and Too Many Magpies and one previous short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, published by Salt in 2007.
About the reviewer: Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. She is a regular contributor to the on-line critical hub for Welsh arts and culture, Wales Arts Review. Of her short fiction in print, most recently she has had stories published in the 2015 Flash Fiction Anthology Landmarks and in anthologies from Hour of Writes. She is also active in the on-line community of writers of flash fiction.