Shiny Prize Season – The Coiled Serpent by Camilla Grudova – Dylan Thomas Prize

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Review by Annabel

The longlist for this year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize is truly eclectic, including poetry and short stories from all over the world alongside novels. After being published in English, eligibility for the prize is based on the author’s age, which must be 39 or under – 39 being the age of Dylan Thomas when he died. The shortlist for the 2024 Prize will be announced this Thursday, with the winner announced on May 16.

As a Canadian living in Edinburgh, Grudova made the most recent Granta list of the “Best of Young British Novelists” with just two books to her name. Her debut, The Doll’s Alphabet, is a collection of short stories I’ve yet to read (but I now own a copy). This was followed by her first novel, Children of Paradise published in 2022, which was witty, gritty, and full of love for old movies, being the story of a distressed old indie cinema and the team of characters who work there. I very much enjoyed it, so looked forward to her third book and second short story collection, The Coiled Serpent, with great anticipation.

To say that the stories in this book are arresting is one thing. They’re full of horror, they’re full of blood and shit too – literally, these stories are very scatalogical. They’re obsessed with food, especially raw meat (and cannibalism!); there are poisons and mould everywhere, physically and psychologically. There is nothing pretty or nice about any of them! It wasn’t pleasant to read these stories, but they are entirely original and compelling in their gruesomeness.

As Grudova lives in Scotland, I wondered whether she’d experienced Alasdair Gray, especially Poor Things. Having just watched the excellent film, Grudova’s dead-pan style in many of these stories made me think of how Gray’s Bella Baxter would make sense of the scenario; there are many similarities and that child-like way of description at times. In one story, a young woman masturbates on the nose of a bust of Mayakovsky, which develops “an off-white, green-tinged skin” – I recalled Bella’s discovery of said act in the film! The title story though, made me think of the Python’s ‘Mr Creosote’ – ‘say no more’!

Let me pick out a few illustrative quotes. In one story with a long title, a woman has many children with different artists…

After the fourth child she had started to name her children after objects she wanted but could not afford: Piano, Stove, Grand Fern. The children grew to resemble the objects they stood in for. Piano was a girl with a wide mouth and large, orderly teeth. She ate with her mouth open, grinned and talked all the time. She liked sweets, which turned a tooth or two black. […] Most cruelly, Jenny named a little boy Dog after she was unable to decide what kind of dog she wished for. The boy mainly liked to eat meat, which they could not afford often.

In ‘The Poison Garden’ Lil runs a Tudor museum in Margate which has a poison garden. Tom is married to Esme, and steals from it with bad intent:

It was lucky that in the kind of food she liked – vegetable ‘bowls’, Asian soups, salads – the abortifacients he was secretly feeding her were easy to hide.

In ‘The Meat Eater’ the narrator starts by telling us about herself:

I was thirty-four years old, overweight, ugly and had a high IQ. I dropped out of my PhD on the feminist modernist poet H.D. and had stopped eating all food except for meat and fish. It has improved all my health problems, including acne, eczema, tremors and epilectic seizures that once left me bedridden for days. I have lost a lot of weight, but this has just made me a different sort of ugly. My nose looks bigger and my eyeballs stick out.

She also describes the last man she slept with, (he wore Star Wars pyjamas).

He didn’t like my looks and he wasn’t interested in my personality. I was just a hole.

In some circles, Grudova is being hailed as the new Angela Carter. She doesn’t appear to do interviews, so it’s a mystery where her inspiration comes from. These stories are twisted and dark, visceral; they’re visually horrific, and there is little convention to them, yet they have a beguiling simplicity, and the themes that run through them give continuity as a collection. Reading them was certainly an experience! I now need to go back to Grudova’s first collection, The Doll’s Alphabet which preceded her novel, and I will definitely look forward to whatever she produces next.

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Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Camilla Grudova, The Coiled Serpent (Atlantic, 2023). 978-1838956356, 198 pp., hardback.

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