Having had one of the worst bouts of flu in years over the last week, hence the silence, the one thing that would have made it bearable would have reading. As I seemed to become allergic to light this was not possible until yesterday when I promptly devoured Cary Bray’s short story collection Sweet Home (which I discovered through Jen Campbell) and it proved the perfect reading prescription. Short captivating tales with a hint of magical that entertained me and allowed me to doze between each or every other tale and have slightly surreal and magical dreams that matched the books contents. This was a huge relief to me, for the last week while I have been (seriously) sweating, sneezing, coughing or having an occasional woe is me weep, all I have been dreaming about it giving politicians a tour or a very grey office block, seriously, on repeat. So as I said, this collection was the perfect short series of bursts of escapism.
When it comes to short stories I tend to have two types that I really love, make that three. First there is the fairytale; be it a classic, a modern retelling or something completely new. Secondly I like short stories that have a twist you don’t see coming or pack a hefty punch when you least expect it. Thirdly I like a bittersweet tale that encompasses a whole novel in mere pages, I want it all – love, grief, happiness, devastation. In her debut collection Sweet Home, which was published in 2012 by Salt (and annoyingly I missed) and has now been republished by Windmill, Carys Bray delivers all three of these things that I love, sometimes all at once.
It is always difficult to summarise a collection, something I say in every single review I do of one I know, yet there are certain themes which Bray seems to be studying and exploring the intricacies with Sweet Home. The first, funnily enough, is ‘the home’. Through the collection what constitutes a home, what makes a happy one and if home really is where the heart is, are all looked at. In the story Wooden Mum, Bray cleverly looks at the role and respect a mother feels she is shown through the ways her children play with a dolls house and the wooden family within it. It is also the main point of the title story which looks at a woman who buys a piece of forest and building a house made from sugar and sweets…
Of course no one accused the woman of being a witch. But she was foreign. Her words percolated up the tunnel of her throat, espresso-thick and strong. Bad weather had eroded her face. Some believed that the sun had crisped her skin into coriaceous pleats. Others blamed the chaw of a wintery climate. No one knew where she had come from, though lots of people privately thought that perhaps she ought to go back.
This leads us nicely into the element of fairytale that runs through the book. In most stories there is mention of one or comparisons of one. It is probably the retelling of Hansel and Gretel in Sweet Home or in The Ice Baby, a wonderful and quite literally heartbreaking tale of a couple who are desperate to have a child and so far have been unable to. There is also the dystopic fairytale, if such a thing exists, The Baby Aisle where the busy working mum or dad can simply pick up a child in a supermarket, they even have reduced ones, it isn’t specified but I think you could probably get club card points with them too. This really is the second main theme and topic of Sweet Home, children and childhood. In stories like The Countdown, Bed Rest and the incredibly unsettling Just In Case, we find parents who have either lost children, are panicking about losing children or are looking at certain periods of worry in their own childhood’s. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is Scaling Never which is told through the eyes of a young boys as he deals with his own, along with his families, grief after the death of his sister Issy…
The house is full of sadness. It’s packed into every crevice and corner like snow. There are bottomless drifts of it beside Issy’s Cinderella beanbag in the lounge. The sadness gives Jacob the shivers and he takes refuge in the garden. Like the house, it is higgledy and unkempt. The lawn is scuffed and threadbare in places like a grassy doormat that’s felt too many feet.
For those of you who know of Carys Bray’s incredibly well received and read debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, this is where I am guessing the story originated and it has certainly left me with a real hankering to get to that novel very soon. Grief and death soon become clear preoccupations for Bray as much as birth, this also links into health and in many of the stories someone is ill be it bed rest for a child to come, a simple bug, Alzheimer’s or cancer. The latter are the case in two of my favourites tales, which sounds odd considering the subject matter. My Burglar made me want to cry as our protagonist goes around her house telling us, and her daughter, that she is sure she is being burgled or the most random items. Then there is what I think is the collections knock out story, Under Covers.
Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat. The wind has blown it off the washing line and tossed it onto the wispy fingertips of the leylandii, where it reclines in a sprawl of wire, hooks and corralling lace. Despite her best efforts, she can’t reach it. Her washing basket is full of dry laundry. She has removed the pegs from the line and placed them in their little bag. But she can’t go back indoors until she has retrieved the fugitive bra. People might see it.
What follows here is the tale of Carol, her husband, and the two girls watching from the upstairs window and it is just so beautifully told and intricately woven. We see the story of the change in a marriage as an older woman tries to find her bra and thinks of all the things it stands for, from a healthy sex life to a healthy life and the two giggling teenagers who have their whole lives, and love lives, ahead of them. If it doesn’t choke you up and have you thinking long and hard about everything then you have no heart – there I have said it!
It is a testament to Bray’s writing that all these subject matters are dealt with in a way that is honest, unflinching and confronting, yet told in a warm, emotive and tender way even when at their most bittersweet. Bray also does that thing I love so much, she makes the ordinary seem extraordinary and, particularly in the case of On The Way Home where we flit from person to person down a street, she finds the magical in the tales of everyday folk. I think Sweet Home is a wonderful, wonderful collection. I shall be heading to Cary Bray’s novels very soon indeed.