Now there is a title indeed. One that had in fact made me pick up this debut short story collection quite some time ago, only for it to (rather shame facedly for me) linger on my shelves for all too long. However that all changed when I was asked if I would join the inaugural official shadow panel for the, speaking of titles, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016. It was the only title that I hadn’t read yet and so I went to get the copy off my shelves… only I don’t have shelves at the moment, just masses of boxes filled with books I can’t get to, so thankfully the lovely folk at the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 sent me another copy, before the shortlist was officially announced, and I promptly devoured it. What a collection it proved to be.
John Murray, 2015, paperback, short stories, 182 pages, kindly sent by FMcM
I usually find, and this might just be me, that a collection of short stories can be really, really hard to write about. Firstly, if it is a good collection, you want to talk about every short story as if it was a novel. That after all is one of the wonders of short stories, when they are wonderful they can compete with the longest of tomes because their intense impact can have such a potent punch. Nice alliteration there Simon Savidge, ha. Secondly, collections can have a huge amount of scope. Another thing that makes them so great to read, you can go off here, there and everywhere within a collection. Marvellous. This is indeed the case with An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It though there is one familiar strand in almost every tale, loneliness.
I was lonely all through that summer, although at the time I didn’t realise how lonely. It was only later, looking back after everything was over, when the leaves were gone from the trees and when the dark in close about the library by mid afternoon, and when my work was going well again and I was happy, that I began to see how things had been, and to wonder if I might have been a little ill from it.
In pretty much every tale in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (thank goodness for copy and paste) the narrator of the tale is inherently lonely, even if they might not seem it from their circumstance. A child might be feeling lonely at home as their parents marriage cracks become all the more apparent, as in Dolphin. A man and woman might become lonely strangers in a marriage, as in The Comfort of the Dead, or in a long distance relationship, as in Three Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty Five Miles. Someone may become lonely and ostracised by their own manners, as in Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague. You get the gist; you can also see that Jessie Greengrass likes a good title, the two combining with most effect in The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut The Whaler, which does what it says on the tin with the addition of a brilliant penguin and albatross. See made you want to read on there didn’t I?
This might have made An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It sound like a rather depressing and difficult, relentlessly lonely, read. Not at all. Where Greengrass makes things anything but is in her settings. Some of these are physical, so tales may take us from one side of the world to the other (though interestingly I always thought I was in cold seasons, even if in potentially warmer settings) but also some of these are time. We have stories from the past, like the title tale, we also have stories from the future such as Winter, 2058. This both showing loneliness has as few boundaries as Jessie Greengrass in her imagination and ability to take the reader anywhere and everywhere.
Yet whilst the settings might be foreign or futuristic, or indeed in the depths and mists of time, the feelings we humans feel and the extraordinary in the ordinary (something long time readers of this blog will know I love) feature heavily. Raw emotion, actually better put, basic/base emotion is always at the heart of Greengrass’ tales. We have the simple situations of day to day life like the desire to find a new job/our true vocation and a plot for escape in the brilliant All The Other Jobs. I mean come on who hasn’t sat at their desk once or twice and daydreamed of becoming a cooper (yes, I had to look it up too) or tending chickens on a Welsh Island for a while? Ok, maybe I have imagined running a zoo, but you know what I mean. There are also those times of extreme emotions, for example this paragraph in my second most favourite story On Time Travel, which is one of the most vivid depictions of grief I have read.
My father had died very suddenly and it was hard, of course, in all the usual ways, but hard also because we hadn’t ever been a happy family; ever and it was this fact even more than the fact that he was gone which trapped us, me and my mother, in the moment of his passing; and because it seemed so awful that something so obviously terrible might in some ways come as a relief, we couldn’t talk about it and, unable to talk about it, couldn’t talk about anything else either.
Greengrass can turn her hand to pretty much anything. That isn’t to say this is a perfect collection, occasionally I didn’t ‘get a story’ or some were so brief I had to re-read them and ponder them a while and re-read them again, but that can be said of many collections. Overall this is a corking collection that I think looks at life now, regardless of when the story is set, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It may be set in the past but look at how we are treating nature now, Winter, 2058 might be about weird goings on in the future but actually I thought it looked at how we are, or aren’t as I think is more apt to say, dealing with people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once I started to see these themes again and again, I wanted to go back to the very beginning again.
I do want to mention Winter, 2058 again and give it some special dedication because for me this was like a perfect example a ‘Simon Savidge favourite kind of short story’ – I know a special award indeed. It had absolutely everything I loved wrapped up into a mere 15 pages. It is a tale of loneliness is a very real yet very other world, has hints of fairy tale, folklore, the gothic, supernatural and alien yet is really about displacement. Oh and as I mentioned I think also about the horrors and prevalence of Alzheimer’s, but that could just be me. If I ever edited an anthology of short stories it would go straight in. Worth the cover price alone frankly. I have thought about it so much since, so much.
I was a child when the first intrusion was discovered, stumbled across by a pair of walkers in a clearing in the Forest of Dean. At first, their story was treated lightly. It was midsummer, and what they described sounded so much like a fairy tale: the odd lights and sounds between a stand of beech; the half remembered visions; confusion; and afterwards a kind of stupor, so that they became lost for a day and a night, unable to find their way out of the trees.
As you may have guessed I really, really liked this collection. I think Jessie Greengrass is clearly a very talented writer and I cannot wait to read what she writes next.
Having read The Ecliptic, Physical, Grief is the Thing With Feathers and now this I have no idea how the judges of the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 are going to choose a winner, let alone we shadow judges this Saturday. It is a corking list and you can win all four of the books on it here because I think these are books you really need on your shelves.