When shopping in Waterstones, have you ever stopped to read the little cards which stand before certain books, resplendent with artfully cultivated handwriting which says ‘I’m interesting, me!’ and exuding gushing praise with today’s most overused (and inapproriate) adjectives: ‘Adorable!’, ‘Amazing!’; ‘Brave!’; ‘Stunning!’. I’ve always suspected that they aren’t really written by the staff but are produced by some poor intern chained to discarded box of Iris Murdoch paperbacks in the cellar at Waterstones’s HQ and then hand copied for ‘authenticity’. (I do have issues with Waterstones – but that’s a story for another day).
Anyway, one day I was in the Manchester (Deansgate) branch (hint – if you want to buy a book from Waterstones in Manchester, head over to the Arndale branch – it may well be cheaper than on Deansgate!) and saw this book on a small table with a little handwritten card. To be honest I didn’t read the card, except to notice that Lara Williams is a local author and this is her first collection. To ruffle my own feathers I decided to take the risk and buy something completely unexpected and unknown…
Williams’ collection gets off to a pacey start with ‘It Begins’ which captures in a few short pages the shattering speed of youth and the grinding halt when middle age finally dawns. It is an audacious and thrilling opener, throwing down a gilded gauntlet to the rest of the stories in this slim volume.
Many of these tales concern themselves with what we could call the ‘rental generation’ – those currently in the hinterland where youth is rapidly coming to an end while the (often exaggerated) trappings of adulthood (homes, careers) are proving elusive and out of reach. These are tales about being rootless in the city, drifting in and out of jobs and relationships, on a scale perhaps not seen since the 1970s. They display the endless search for love and the fear of loneliness, the creeping realisation that, despite ourselves, time isn’t on our side:
‘Ray had given up answering questions. There seemed to be, he thought, too many of them. Best to just go with the flow. Be that guy: some easy-going dude, I sunglasses and a papaya print shirt. That guy didn’t split a dick trying to find decent asparagus, ambling around puzzled; all salt and pepper hair at the Sunday farmer’s market. That guy embraced his paunch, the inescapable inevitabilities of age, the unconquerable ravages of existence, replying ‘whatever you say, doc!’ when asked by his GP if he’d considered cutting down on salt, then went straight out for burgers.’
A while ago I wrote about the genius of Shena Mackay, whose stories address the flotsam and jetsom of the city, the daily grot of suburbia and the general forlorn nature of life. There is sadness at the heart of Mackay’s work, but being written in earlier decades allows a space for daydreams and the possibility of hope. To be rootless in the city in earlier days meant freedom from the ties that bind, a freedom to drift in and out of jobs and affairs because a future was always something you could rely on. To be rootless could be a choice. For many in this generation, it seems, that choice has been removed. It is now a fact of life. This means, perhaps inevitably, that Williams’ stories bring with them a hard edged cynicism, a weariness, a hopelessness: Happiness is to be found offstage, across the road, in another’s garden – all of which is accepted with a shrug and a sigh that this is all there is. Part of me wants to slap these characters and tell them to get a grip before its too late; the other part wants to give them a hug and tell them that everything will be OK – life is good and you will find your way, however meandering it may seem. But then I can do this because, coming from an older generation, in many ways I’ve had it lucky.
Despite the cynicism, Williams is too good a writer to allow her stories to become overwhelmed with darkness. Like Mackay, Williams has a fine eye for the one-liner:
‘It’s been a terrible year for rape’. he’d told her, the first time they met. ‘But the carrots are doing fine.’
and straddles the fine line between humour and pathos with ease. Light and shade.In my favourite story of the collection, ‘Here’s to you’, Aahna has returned to her parent’s house after her boyfriend leaves to travel the world and her career as a dancer has stalled. On Hallowe’en a trio of trick or treaters come to the door, dressed as Madonna, Cher and Tina Turner.
‘The clop of their heels echoed down the street. They whooped with glee.
‘Cher’, Aahna shouted after them
‘Hey Cher, I’ve got a question for you.’
They stopped, breathless. Holding onto each other. They turned around and their eyes shimmered with expectation.
‘Oh yeah,’ Cher replied.
‘Yeah,’ Aahna shouted.
‘Do you believe in life after love?’
The girls looked at each other in disbelief. They giggled , giddy and drunk; drunk on this crazy lady, scampering back down the street like wild things into the night.
‘Well do you?’ Aahna yelled after them.
Williams can also knock you sideways. Check out ‘Tributaries’ and you’ll see what I mean.
As a new writer Williams does sometimes seem to strain, to over-write, but it’s a joy to see a new writer flexing their muscles, pushing, stretching and if there are a few hiccups, so what?
I love William’s stories, but the editing of the book could have been better, in that there are simply too many stories (21) in it. Earlier I mentioned that these stories strike a fine balance between light and shade but, when taken en-masse, the subtleties seem to blur and a feeling of sameness appears to creep in… go back to the individual stories and you realise this simply a case of less being more, something which other excellent collections prove: Colin Barrett’s ‘Young Skins’ holds a mere 7 stories, while Ali Smith’s ‘Public Library’ 12. A recent collection which exceeds William’s story count is Shena Mackay’s ‘Dancing on the Outskirts’ which contains 29 stories, but these are selected from over 40 years of storytelling.
Please, please, please don’t let this minor quibble put you off. There are some brilliant stories here and a voice which has the ability to surprise and amuse. I can’t wait to read what Lara Williams does next.
In case you’re wondering, I went back to Waterstones to see exactly what the blurb on the table said about ‘Treats’. Here it is:
‘What a treat this collection is. Unmissable if you want a Mancunian meander with on point characters, sharp observation, lyrical connections and tightly wound relationships. Women in their twenties having mistakes made to them. Lonely men who drink and drive and yearn and fail. Small moments change everything. A perfect collection.’