Salt Modern Fiction

Review of The White Road and other stories by Tania Hershman

A collection of short stories is a tricky thing. The reader needs to get a sense of the writer’s unique voice and residual personality and style but without the stories running into sameness. In The White Road and other stories Tania Hershman accomplishes this masterfully. The collection is inspired by articles from science magazines but Tania, a former science journalist, creates her own utterly original and often beautifully surreal interpretations of the science prompt.  From the striking title story to the magically unusual Rainstiffiness, each story has something unexpected and weirdly wonderful.

One of Hershman’s many fortes is her characterization. There are a range of diverse and memorable characters who linger in the imagination long after the book is read. Two of my favourites were the title characters in Evie and the Arfids and The Incredible Exploding Victor.

For me, as both reader and writer, flash fiction done well has – more than other types of fiction – the greatest potential for joy. To tell a story that is complete and which moves in a few words is a great skill on the part of the writer and for the reader is enthralling. In this collection, some of whose pieces are very short indeed, Tania Hershman demonstrates that skill to a high degree. Each story has its own internal rightness but the collection as a whole has a wonderful breadth and variety. Every story feels like a gift, like spun sugar or the amazing confectionary creations of ‘Self-Raising’ with its extraordinary climax, Hershman similarly makes fabulous things out of ideas and words, always asking ‘what if?’.  As a reader I read in open-mouthed awe and joy, as a writer I writhed with envy. This is a must read collection.

The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman is published by Salt Publishing.

Review of Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines

Domesticity never takes place upon a large or lauded stage, it is a private, secret world whose interactions and observances are held and carried forward into ‘real life’. Elizabeth Baines’ book places the domestic in this central, core position. ‘A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s saftey as the natural world around her becomes even more certain. Until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power.’

In this novel there is a sense of what was the title of Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection ‘Balancing on the edge of the world’. She subtlely elucidates the tremulous feeling and anxious vigilance of parenthood. There is the impression that threats are always close. What Baines does beautifully is to convey the otherworldliness experience of bringing up small children and their way of making our commonplace world seem bizzare. The not-quite-rightness of the eldest child Danny’s behaviour is imbued with a magical and mystical quality.

This is a book that made me hold my breath. Baine’s gift is to do the literary equivalent of revealing what is on the inside of trouser pockets during laundry, ordinary and sacred things otherwise hidden are carefully revealed. Both these secret pockets and the heart is turned inside out on reading. The main character  goes along the motorway to meet the man she looks to for direction, she stretches the domestic elastic, always travelling back again, she breaks the taboos of suburban motherhood, she risks censure but the elastic tugs constantly. She discovers what is ‘really’ wrong with her child and the threat is now tangible, accessible.

What I found extraordinary as reader and writer was Elizabeth Baines’ ability to convey so skillfully and lightly the nuances of relationships and communication, the small exchanges, the particular words of common conversation that can illuminate the character’s view of each other or irreversibly wound. As a reader it was the kind of book I have longed to read, as a writer, it is the kind of book I would dream of writing. To sum up the strength and marvel of this book is to see it like a dust mote, something mundanely domestic but magical, spinning for long moments in our consciousness.

Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines is published by Salt Modern Fiction