Reviewed by Karen Langley
Despite there being fewer outlets for the format nowadays, the short story just keeps on going as a valid art form; and luckily we’re blessed with a number of wonderful small publishers who keep bringing us excellent new collections of these works. Freight Books are one such outfit, and they recently published a much-touted new book by author Lara Williams, Treats, which brings together a number of quite stunning short stories.
Williams is being lauded as ‘Young, gifted and feminist’ – which is a pretty good by-line, and did make me keen to read her collection. A slim volume containing 22 works, it’s her debut, and the stories are an intriguing selection. Ranging from very short (less than three pages) to a length more in keeping with a traditional short story, Williams’ tales take on a variety of experiences, usually from the female point of view.
From taxidermy to abortion, relationships and break ups, the difficulty of negotiating the modern world, keeping a grasp on your sanity and getting older as a single woman, the stories are powerfully told and very compelling. They’re also darkly funny in places, and I defy any woman reader not to find something with which to identify. Williams’ style is quirky and individual, and very readable – in fact, her distinctive voice captured me from the very first paragraph:
And so it begins. You graduate university. You move back home, slotting neatly into your single bed, examining the tears in the wallpaper, the posters on the wall. You sleep in till eleven. Your mum cooks you porridge, setting it down on the kitchen table, the mealy textures of your childhood. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about this one,’ she says. ‘You were born to work in an art gallery.’
Often using this clipped, almost shorthand style, Williams brilliantly captures the bleakness of life, the constant struggle to find a purpose and a motivation, and the misunderstandings between men and women. It’s an effective technique and always insightful.
And despite the modern trappings, there are situations here that women of all ages will identify with. The story Both Boys, for example, where the narrator is courted by two boys, best friends but complete opposites, reminded me of the Dory Previn song Angels and Devils. In Previn’s work, the rougher of the two was the more genuine, and here Williams’ character is attracted to the boy who’s more casual and less interested.
Interestingly, the narrative point of view is not always a female one; and Williams seems equally comfortable telling her story from either angle. Her characters’ voices are always convincing ones, and she’s mastered that crucial art of pinning down people and situations in just a few words.
Williams’ women, in fact, often brought to mind older heroines like Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam Henderson (from her pioneering Pilgrimage sequence of novels). Watching them searching for love, debating if marriage or commitment is the thing or dealing with loneliness, I found myself wondering if anything had really changed for the modern female. Williams’ worldview can be a bleak one; her characters often seem to have limited choices and limited prospects. There are many hard-hitting events; the stories are harsh and raw in places, and there is the sense that the world is not a nice or happy one – certainly it’s not all flowers and butterflies and chocolate boxes. But there are life affirming moments and the book ends on an upbeat note.
I was mightily impressed with Treats and I’m really glad that Freight decided to send a copy my way, because it’s not a book I’d necessarily have picked up myself. Williams spent some time drumming for the rock band Pins, and she’s written essays and non fiction as well; but on the evidence of this collection she’s chosen the right profession! It’s reassuring to see, with collections like this, that the art of the short story is alive and thriving – it’s obviously in very safe hands.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and finds the modern world just a little bit scary sometimes…
Lara Williams, Treats (Freight Books, 2016). 9781910449707, 144pp, paperback.
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