Jellyfish by Janice Galloway

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Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

Janice Galloway’s new short story collection takes as its starting point an observation by David Lodge: “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” The twelve stories in Jellyfish don’t disprove Lodge exactly, but they do approach the topics of sex and parenthood – or, to take a more general view, heightened moments of feeling and the longer-term experience of living – from a variety of angles, bringing more nuance to the straightforward opposition of Lodge’s statement.

Some of the tales are very much about having children. The title story follows Monica as she takes her young son Calum on a trip to the beach. Calum is growing up fast, and Monica is keen to keep him safe, aware that he’s about to become a new person when he starts school the next day. Signs of precariousness – such as a boy in a pram hanging over the kerb edge – sit alongside those of confidence, like Calum perfecting his technique at piercing a drink carton with a straw; effectively, Monica is seeing her anxieties being played out around her. Towards the story’s end, these anxieties come to a head, as Monica has to explain the random cruelty that lay behind a beach of dead jellyfish – but then a crab climbs out from beneath a boulder as Calum goes off to play football with some older boys. Hope wins out in a story with wonderfully kinetic use of imagery.

At the opposite end of the book is ‘Distance’, which in some ways can be seen as the inverse of ‘Jellyfish’. Here, the protagonist has already – painfully – become separated from her son. After an accident causes Peter to cut his head open, Martha wants to be there for him, but cannot shake the feeling that “the beast in the dark was…only herself.” Martha moves out of the family home and becomes a supply teacher (they get asked fewer questions about themselves). At first, Peter comes to visit her on weekends, with photos of his new life; then there are just letters, and even those dry up in time – the distance between Martha and her son grows as the years pass. Eventually, she travels to the Hebridean island of Jura – analogous to Calum’s and Monica’s beach visit in ‘Jellyfish’, but very different in tone and purpose. There’s a measure of hope at the ‘Distance’, though, fragile as it may seem.

Alongside lengthier stories like ‘Jellyfish’ and ‘Distance’, Galloway includes some very short pieces (perhaps four pages, or even fewer) which capture a particular situation with vivid intensity. An example is ‘Burning Love’ whose narrator builds a pyre from all the reminders of a failed relationship. The exhaustive detail in which these are listed (“That ugly bloody sofa I habitually hid bottles behind because she thought I drank too much”) underlines the narrator’s anger, setting the stage for a macabre ending. There are the two vignettes titled ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’, which open up the gap of years in a few pages each. One waits outside a teenage girl’s bedroom as she’s having sex, and reflects on the child she used to be; the other depicts a fortysomething woman sleeping in front of the TV, in the shadow of the career and life and life she once had.

There’s still more in Galloway’s collection: ‘Greek’ is a compressed tale of a relationship, inflected by mythology. ‘Almost 1948’ depicts Eric Blair towards the end of his life, implying a contrast between what we see in the story and the figure of George Orwell that he would become after death. ‘Opera’ sees Lola, a vivacious older woman, heading out for what may be one last hurrah; her teenage lodger watches on, struggling to imagine who Lola might have been in her time, though the reader can guess. So often in Jellyfish, we find the gap between past and present illuminated like this, as well as other aspects of life dissected by Galloway’s keen eye.

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Janice Galloway, Jellyfish (Freight Books: Glasgow, 2015). 978-1908754950, 170pp., hardback.

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