The first book of the year to me is always an important one. I used to pick them willy nilly and then would have willy nilly reading years, as it were. In the last few years I have got wiser and so now take a bit of time deciding which book to read. I chose Carys Davies’ debut collection Some New Ambush because I hoped it would fit the bill of what I want in the reading year ahead. I want to read corking writing, marvellous stories and things that are a little quirky which might be lesser known. Oh and I really want to read quite a few beloved authors back lists this year too, and last year with The Redemption of Galen Pike Carys immediately was sent into that category. So I opened Some New Ambush and promptly devoured it in a day.
It is very difficult to try and categorise Some New Ambush because with every story Carys Davies takes you somewhere totally different. We might be in a bookstore cafe in America, and then off to a small welsh town. We might head to an island where everything is red or we may take a wander in an airport on the outskirts of London. In a similar vein time varies as much as place sometimes we are in a magical land and time; like the island of red in Red Rose, we may be off with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visiting an asylum; as we do in The Visitors or we could be in the present day in a school possibly just down the road; as with Historia Calamitatum Mearum or we may be in a story that could take place in any time. There is no boundaries to where these stories may lead to, which is wonderful, no story is anything like the others.
There are however some similarities with the stories and some themes. In the latter case, in all fifteen of Carys Davies stories something is lost. What is really, really difficult though to do is try and explain this in a way which will not give anything away as with every tale of Davies’ there is always an element of surprise somewhere and I defy you to be able to see any of them coming. It might be a friendship or it might be hope. So where was I? Oh yet loss and losing things, this seems to be a theme in every one of the tales in Some New Ambush. It might be a friendship or it might be your dry cleaning. It might be a bracelet, it could be a child. It could be love, it could be hope.
I always hoped it wasn’t someone old who took Bobby. He was afraid of old people. He’d look at the yellow whites of their eyes and their ugly teeth and the shiny brown skin on their hands and then push his face into Lily’s skirts and hide. He was afraid of old people and dogs and witches, though he was very fond indeed of fairy tales and I always thought it likely that he was lured away, not with the offer of sweets or a drive in a nice car, but with the promise of a story.
If this sounds all a bit maudlin, fret not for one of the things that I love most about Carys Davies’ writing is that there is always humour within, some of it might be pretty dark but the humour is there all the same. There is also always the sense of the fairy tale and the magical within the stories too, without these ever really being fairy tales, well with the exception of Rose Red I suppose which feels more like a fable. Instead I think Carys leaves in a hint of the magical and more often that not she pays homage to fairy tales, which were really the first short stories, and then twists them in a modern more ‘natural’ way. Tales like Pied Piper, Waking the Princess, Ugly Sister and Gingerbread Boy may have names of fairytales past or nod to them yet the magic that Carys is celebrating really is the everyday and it works wonderfully. Even in other stories like The Captain’s Daughter when you think you are getting a fairy tale or something supernatural a surprise will come along and give you something quite different. Those surprises again, how I love them as they are always better than what you could imagine.
These days he seems worse. He appears frightened now, when I leave the room, a look of startled alarm freezes his features. There are times when we are out in the street when he truly does not seem to know where he is, and if I let go of his arm for two seconds to go and post a letter, or to go and get the Pay & Display sticker for the car, I come back to find him standing next to it, apparently bewildered and afraid, anxiously toeing the gravel with the point of his shoe. One day in the kitchen a while ago he was making one of his Bakewell tarts and he couldn’t remember what an egg was.
Then last Thursday morning, he came downstairs without his hand.
Just as it is hard to talk about any of these stories in depth for fear of spoiling them, as obviously you are all going to go and get your hands on them straight away, it is also very hard to pick favourites when a collection such as this one is so strong. Naturally I loved going to an asylum with Wilkie Collins and (to a lesser extent, ha) Charles Dickens in The Visitors. Opener Hwang is a wonderful tale of two friends regular meeting and bitching about their scary dry cleaner, which soon becomes a very upsetting and then darkly funny tale of revenge. Monday Diary might just break your heart as a boy discusses why his mother calls him a gift from god. Historia Calamitatum Mearum is a tale of a feud between a latin teacher and a technology teacher, which looks at history vs modernisation in a very witty way. Ugly Sister is a tale of two sisters who have become inseperable, now living together in their older years still trying to get men and taking it in turns to win them with a twist you will not see coming and possibly another one after that. Metamorphosis starts as a tale of mild stalking in a library that leads to madness. See I could go on.
That said, Pied Piper did completely blow me away, which is honestly saying something when you love every single story out of a whopping fifteen. A woman who has been unable to have children finds a baby abandoned in the sand dunes on her birthday whilst taking one of her regular trips out to see the sea. As there is no one there and as the baby needs care she takes it. Back in her village everyone, from her husband to her neighbours, each knows the baby isn’t hers and they keep up the pretence for years and then something happens that changes the life of everyone in that village. I can’t say what, or really say much more, but it completely shocked me, broke me and left me unable to do anything except make a strong cup of sweet tea before I could go on. It is an absolutely amazing short story and does in ten pages what some novels don’t manage to achieve in 400.
As you might have guessed I simply adored Some New Ambush. Having read this and The Redemption of Galen Pike there is no dout that Carys Davies is my favourite writer of short stories. She can create a character in a single sentence, build complete worlds in a mere paragraph and create entire lives in mere pages. She is just wonderful. I am only sad there isn’t a new collection on the horizon, though I have heard one is being worked on thank goodness. If you haven’t read her work then please, please, please do. What a start to my reading year, the only worry now is if anything else can live up to this?