'and I thought of myself in the time before I made all my choices, when all the narratives were open...'
In her latest collection of short stories, Used To Be, Elizabeth Baines explores the nature of time, examining the effects of its passage on her characters' perception of events and places, as they navigate the world searching for clarity, certainty, explanation. The collection is arranged in two parts, What Was, What Is and What May Be, but in all of the stories the characters are subject to the intricate interplay of past, present and future: 'in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable'.
In 'Tides', a couple stand by the sea at dusk, ‘the point from which the tale could go backwards to all that happened before, and forwards, beyond that night’. In the fast-paced title story, 'Used to Be', a middle-aged writer is hurtling along a motorway with her sister: 'And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves: the single mother, the hippy student, the middle-class housewife giving dinners, the teacher's-pet swot, the efficient no-nonsense young professional.' In the haunting, enigmatic 'Looking for the Castle', a woman returns to the town where she lived as a girl but the ruined castle she remembers so vividly is nowhere to be seen. As the story progresses, an unsettling sense arises that past and present are out of alignment, as if she has invented the memory, or dreamt it.
The writing is vivid, buoyant, incisive: 'filling her ears with a noise so loud it swelled to a kind of silence'; ‘a man in a bright blue jumper came out to his car, whistling into the glassy twenty-first century day’. The stories explore a wide range of styles, voices and forms, reflecting their publication in a variety of magazines and anthologies. What connects and unifies them is their vibrant evocation of time and place – and the power of the human mind to transcend both.
Used To Be, Elizabeth Baines
Reviewed by Emma Bosworth
If 'a collection of stories, haiku and longer poems' conveys a somewhat fragmentary impression, it's one that the ambitious, innovative structure does much to transcend. The writing has an urgent, spasmodic intensity:
I put The Trial on my bedside cabinet and fell on my bed. One of the top windows into the garden was open. I got up and tried to pull it closed. I had to tug it a few times before it shut. I fell on my bed again. I wanted to sleep until the next day. The lampshade was twirling like a giant sycamore helicopter above the TV's snowy sky without the aerial plugged in and I threw up on my Victim Information card.
The collection also features a number of arresting illustrations by Helena Gaudekova (from a series of paintings called Reimagining Ensō).
Broken Sky by Lee Stannard (Eclecta Books)
Reviewed by Tim Shearer
Sol Dearday has been a jobbing private investigator for most of his working life. At the age of forty-one, he realizes that this has been mere preparation for his main case: an investigation into himself, into how a single devastating event in childhood has shaped his adult life. A chance encounter takes him to a small town, in search of a father he has not spoken to in thirty years.
While Hunting in the Dark draws on the style and tropes of genre fiction, its locus is literary, exploring themes of memory and identity, belonging and alienation. In the course of his search Sol encounters characters whose lives are as complex, fractured and secretive as his own. As he becomes more deeply involved in them – the hotelier and his promiscuous wife; the waitress and her abusive father; Trevor and Glenda Holland, the eccentric occupants of 20 Blessmore Avenue – he is compelled to confront his own behaviour, his recklessness and hypocrisy, the ‘magnitude of his betrayal’ of Jackie, his girlfriend. As the plot moves towards its startling climax, the tension is felt all the more acutely through the precise, disciplined prose: ‘He looks at Walter’s jagged face in profile, a face sculpted by raw experience. Occasionally there are twitches and tiny spasms that suggest an internal monologue, a raging and thrashing writ small.’
Hunting in the Dark by Greg Leach
Reviewed by Tim Shearer
Ben Parker’s poems are set in places on the edge, inhabited by people on the edge. His first collection, The Escape Artists, opens with a couple rehoming a horse – and not any old horse; rather, the “horse from which all other horses were bred”. The couple, it transpires, have unwittingly taken a dog from a farmyard, and in thus doing, transferred it from a place on the edge into their own existence at the margins of society.
Other pieces take us through beer-fugged circuses, weird villages penned in by sinister woods and lakes that freeze only once in a lifetime, scary restaurants, fully mirrored flats that force the owner to look in on himself, a tinklebell-protected shogun’s palace and the Cinema of the Drowned.
The First Inhabitant of the Asylum is an enigma; she knows more residents are to come, even though she herself feels unique in her state and institution. Storm Line sucks the reader into a nightmare scenario of landline – lifeline in the not-too-distant past – causing a maelstrom of emotions.
Heroine’s Bath is stated as being “After Daniel Eltinger”, a painter of polychromatic abstracts, and its emphasis on colours and surface finishes becomes clearer when the artist’s work is viewed. This poem is made up of rhyming couplets; elsewhere there are sonnets and pieces that could almost be described as flash fictions, including the arresting title poem, which stands out as more sci-fi/genre.
The Escape Artists by Ben Parker
Reviewed by Sarah-Clare Conlon
Marshland might be dismissed as a sordid tale of grooming gone wrong and when did grooming ever go right? Gone wrong though, what if it plumbed not-so-new depths?
The camera lingers far above the creeks and dunes and swamps, white birds cross on strict bearings, sunlight sparkles on water loaded with detritus, big fish thrash in lagoons, what’s high and dry or exposed by the ebb, has the form of grey matter tinted for a neurologist’s slide. Crossing a river and zooming left, it finds two men, hot in jackets and ties, by their broken-down car, on a dirt track between two of the ditches that dissect immense flat rectilinear rice fields, the highest-yielding in the world, dry now and awaiting a still-labour-intensive harvest.
A tractor stops, they clamber into the trailer among the day labourers. Juan, older and dapper, enjoys the colours of the vast flocks of flamingoes and the sunset, as well as the fairground when they are dropped at the edge of a village, which is en fiestas. Pedro, younger, scruffy, takes everything in but isn’t happy with what he sees, it’s primitive and as for the crucifix in their room, decorated with photos of Hitler, Franco, Salazar and Mussolini, it’s an outrage.
It’s 1980, they’re detectives, sent from Madrid to the Guadalquivir delta near Sevilla, to find two teenage sisters, who have disappeared. The assignment is not a reward for either of them. Franco’s been dead for five years, since when Pedro has joined the police, and had the temerity to criticise a general, who’s against democracy, in a letter to the papers. Juan has been around for much longer and is rumoured to be on the take, not least from prostitutes: he’s philosophical about the assignment and scoffs at democracy. They quarrel. Pedro has had to leave his pregnant wife behind in Madrid.
While Pedro forensically questions the local Guardia Civil, Juan seems more interested in the excellent local fish and the sauce it’s prepared in. When they question the girls’ parents though, it’s Juan who connects with the mother, not without the minimum flirtation he feels is due. Fearing the worst and behind her husband’s back, she passes him charred pornographic negatives of the girls, negatives they hadn’t managed to destroy. She trusts him.
People come forward, a handbag is found. The father of the girls is shifty, though. Like all the villagers, he lives from hand to mouth and dreams of emigration. The rice harvest won’t tide them over for long and they resort to a variety of illegal dodges: poaching, smuggling and now pornography. It turns out that he's stolen heroin from the smugglers. It’s a precarious world of low expectations, fleeting pleasures, greed and strong passions, where Juan feels right at home. To Pedro, it all needs putting right, which, within the limits of his authority, is exactly what he intends to do. And things have gone very wrong: the raped, tortured and mutilated corpses of the girls have turned up and two earlier disappearances have come to light. It’s no gypsy knife fight by moonlight, nor a routine tragedy incidental to prevailing rough justice: it’s aberration.
The four girls had two things in common: Quini (Joaquín) the local heart-throb, and their desperation to get away to jobs on the Costa del Sol. With this menace in the air though, girls are still walking in along the roads, drawn to the vitality of the fiestas; their gait, self-possessed; their new-found sexuality, candidly manifest. The survival of a pagan erotic state of nature in rural Andalucía is still mooted today. In the Alpujarra, Bloomsbury’s Gerald Brennan was provided with a housekeeper whose duties quite naturally extended to sex. Here though, Quini, just a day labourer if good-looking, is a beneficiary. Under Juan’s angry questioning, he is unassailable in his knowledge of young female desire and there is no law against it (the age of consent is thirteen). He has a new girl in tow, Marina, a friend of the murdered sisters, and Pedro and Juan trail him. He picks her up on his motorbike every day after school. She straddles the pillion with the patent sensuality of imminent fulfilment.
Juan and Pedro have to stop Marina’s doom and Quini, who must be pimping these girls, is probably not the murderer. It’s a battle: they bond. Juan’s experience counts, as does his rapport with the villagers. He befriends a poacher they catch with a roe deer over his shoulder, and recruits him as a guide through the labyrinthine waterways and farm tracks, not without demanding his due, jugged venison. Bereaved mothers and fiancés confide in Juan and their stories upset him. Pedro meets the demands of a tabloid photographer from Madrid for gore, gruesome pictures of the corpses, in return for help in finding the point of sale of the rare film negative and in developing the overexposed image of another man on it, besides Quini. The photographer thinks he remembers Juan from the old regime though and asks Pedro about his past.
The photographer will come up with more on Juan’s career: membership of Franco’s secret police, a death, torture. Pedro will doubt it and then dither over confronting Juan with it: it would hinder the battle to save Marina, they’ve become comrades and isn’t Juan demonstrating his humanity every day?
Nevertheless, it’s Juan, the cop with empathy and humour, who was, in the photographer’s phrase, a member of 'Franco’s Gestapo'. And there are hundreds if not thousands of these people still loose in Spain today. His empathy is with the villagers, subjugated people lacking opportunities and denied justice, who make the best of things in true Spanish style, which could mean either putting on a brave face or decidedly opting for the life force. Almost the entire population of Spain used to live like this and Juan helped enforce it. It makes for a certain vitality in the face of indifference, here an indifferent if exuberant nature and a hegemonic agribusiness no less indifferent, not to mention society in general.
Indifference, however, does not amount to disconnection. Juan is dying and a psychic fishwife sees it, so do birds of ill omen. Juan isn’t just in a familiar milieu, he is inextricably caught up in the elemental: like the rest of us, you might say, only down here you can feel it and he does. There never was a régime more ancien than the pagan, as Marina has discovered. Violent death requires retribution, all the more so if it’s contra natura, and, to be fair, innocence, if noticed, deserves protection. Juan assumes the imperatives.
With the investigation paralysed and Marina in still greater danger, Juan has to pull out all the stops. The girls were all tortured: he knows about torture; what can he come up with to move a witness? Sympathy?
Pedro will keep his silence about Juan’s crimes against humanity. Will it be because Juan gives him all the credit for solving the case, to provide his newborn boy with a hero? Will Pedro’s sombre brush with the visceral and fated leave him speechless? Or has one torturer, at least, part-way redeemed himself?
MARSHLAND, OR THE SMALLEST OR MOST REMOTE ISLAND
Original title La Isla Mínima, directed by Alberto Rodríguez, 2014, 100min, Spain
Reviewed by Charlie Sangster