All the Places I’ve Ever Lived by David Gaffney

Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

David Gaffney has earned himself a distinctive reputation as a writer of ‘flash fictions’ – micro-stories, variable in tone and topic but springing from a gonzo imagination – in the collections Sawn-off Tales and More Sawn-off Tales. Anything can happen in 150 words or so. Some of them playfully unpick language. Some employ the humour of inconsequence.  Ribaldry? Romance? Tension? Teasing non sequiturs, brilliantly taking the shaggy-dog story into outer space? He does those too, a virtuoso of the concise & elliptical.

Gaffney is a demon on counterintuitive outcomes, on what happens when people are freed from everyday logic (or denied its protection). He has a judiciously light touch, and like Tommy deVito in Goodfellas he’s a funny guy but he’s not just here to amuse us. If you like, you can even read much of what he writes as meta-fiction, an amused and amusing commentary on writing itself.

And they are not really ‘sawn-off tales’. Like Japanese water flowers they unfold and expand  when saturated with the reader’s attention. Quick to read even more than once, they create lasting reverberations of thought and feeling. Like Elmore Leonard I too often get the dismal sensation, as I heft a contemporary novel that would immobilise a cathedral door, that ‘there are too many words in this book’; that’s one reason I enjoy (and occasionally write) flash fiction.

Fortunately, Gaffney applies the principle of not wasting words in his novel, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived. In 208 pages he covers a lot of ground in space, time, and the alert though often bemused mind of the narrator. It’s a densely textured book but written with a liberating clarity of language and it lays out a welcome mat to assorted popular genres. Elements of magical realism intermingle with the familiar, ‘gritty’ kind; the paranormal with a consideration of social issues; autobiography with ethnography; the investigative crime novel with domestic comedy; the teenage rite-of-passage memoir with science fiction. This bubbling 21st-century mix the author handles with assurance and brio.

A pivot of the action is an horrific, real-world outburst of murderous violence in and around Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast in 2010, leaving twelve dead. The unifying perspective is the consciousness of Barry Dyer, from the nearby town of Cleator Moor, a 15-year-old in 1976, whose first-person narration engages the reader with his quest to find a way through the trials and mysteries of adolescence. His apartness, or destiny, is signalled by the unaccountable (subjective?) appearance of metal implants in his flesh. Subsequently he is helped by a ghost-girl, Petal, who partners him on airborne and seaborne motor-scooter rides. Another ghost-figure, whom Barry calls ‘the diver’, seems less benign. The narrative’s convergent flow moves along the fantasy vector of the story on a time-travel adventure to a synchronic encounter with the documented killing spree that bereaved a community.

Also situated on the Cumbrian coast is Sellafield, a nuclear fuel treatment plant, providing employment but still the embodiment of an energy source that radically divides opinion. All The Places I’ve Ever Lived doesn’t overlook its actual and symbolic presence. In chapter nine Barry and his best mate Finny check out Sellafield on a search for clues, first hearing the opinions of a local farmer before an appointment with Paul Dunnery ‘Head of Community Relations’ there. The farmer is no scientist, but his workaday experience – of poisoned land and water, genetic defects in livestock – makes him doubt British Nuclear Fuel Limited’s bland public reassurances. After getting mildly rousted by armed BNFL cops, the boys pass some disturbing signs (‘RADIATION LEVEL ABOVE 25 MR/HR DO NOT LOITER’) to hear Dunnery, with his ‘joyless smile’, parrot the smug official line on nuclear power. The community, like the nation, is split. Corporate and state authority rule. The sequence ends as Petal opportunely pops up on the Defiant scooter, causing Finny to faint, and delivers a worrying prophecy of future community damage. She and Barry immediately take off to a rendezvous with death many years ahead in the following chapter.

There is no full consensus on what can and can’t be hypothetically changed by time travel – the Terminator conundrum. But if you can’t change the past can you imagine the future, one that will include all the places you’ve ever lived, all the living that may make you not the person you were as a youth? What eventuates for Barry may surprise readers – the author is a master of surprise – but it caps a novel that has has all along played fast and loose with chronology and whacked open a piñata full of goodies for any reader who likes a sharp wit and dexterous storytelling. David Gaffney’s very personal style is versatile, intelligent and fun.

David Gaffney, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived (Urbane Publications, 2017). 978-1911331063, 208 pp., paperback.

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