Rating 5 stars
Read for the 20 Books of Summer readathon.
How to describe How The Light Gets In. The prosaic description is that it’s a collection of short stories. It’s not, though. Not entirely. These are ultra short stories, fragments in many cases, brief glimpses into the lives of people on the edge of the prosaic. I found some of the stories breathtaking, literally. At times, I found myself holding my breath with the emotion of being dropped into a situation and then realising the enormity of that situation to the person experiencing it.
Clare Fisher has found a way in the least number of words possible to describe what it is to be fractured but still alive. She has observed in detail how people’s lives can change in the beat of a second hand or the flash of headlights into a room as a car drives past.
From the chinks in your well-being when you lose someone you love and the stress fractures that bow under the pressure of being a carer to the dark places that lurk within us and suck us back from the light without warning, the stories in this book consider how we learn to live with the cracks that trace across our existence. It’s a book about anxiety, depression, bullying, otherness. There’s a gentle humour, finding the slivers of light that brighten the darkness, that leavens the deadly seriousness of life for the majority in contemporary Britain.
Slip is a boy who used to be bullied not because, as the bullies made out, he was short but because he had a different home life. But now Slip has found a use for his small stature that keeps him safe from the bullies.
A sister finally reaches understanding about her brother years after they had to spend their weekends doing whatever their parents dictated, years after his frustration has translated into a freedom to live life the way he wants to.
All of the ways in which smartphones stop us interacting with each other as strangers in ways that don’t require intimacy but still leave us feeling more connected are considered by someone waiting at a rendezvous for another someone who never arrives.
An unemployed man becomes obsessed with construction work outside his window to the puzzled amusement and mild frustration of his family, inexplicably becoming an expert in construction work, while his children seek out treasures in the detritus of the site.
A group of friends debate the origin of beards as symbol of hipster culture with unexpectedly violent consequences.
Characters reappear in later stories giving a sense of life moving on. In one sense, this reminded me of the collection I read recently by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Where Heads of the Colored People left me discomfited, though, How the Light Gets In was familiar territory. I knew from personal experience what most of the situations in Fisher’s world feel like.
The longest of the stories in this collection is 7 pages long, the shortest is 4.5 lines. Fisher has a talent for capturing everything you need to know within those narrow parameters. At times it’s like eavesdropping, hearing a tiny fragment about a stranger’s life but being able to extrapolate from that fragment all of the other things they are dealing with.
I read the collection at the end of a stressful and tiring week and the brevity of Fisher’s communication was a relief. The someone who is waiting for another someone who never arrives refers to novels and their demands on the reader’s attention. Fisher might be writing about the generation for whom social media is their telly or going down the pub, their entertainment and their social interaction, but it’s not just that generation who turns away from fiction that requires an investment of time and concentration. All of us need fiction that says the same things as those novels that “so many people who know so much about literature think [are] worth reading in the first place” but says those things more succinctly. Contemporary life is exhausting for everyone. We’re not designed to be switched on and connected all the time. The relentlessness of life is at the root of the dark places Fisher’s characters find themselves in. The constant need to deliver your personal brand to a faceless audience via social media leaves us feeling judged and inadequate, if we allow ourselves to shine a light on who we really are beneath the carefully constructed social persona.
Relationships are hard work. Being human is hard work. Being alive is hard work. Fisher’s stories acknowledge this and open up ways for the reader to acknowledge it, too. In a world in which our online interconnectivity is making many of us feel disconnected on a real level, it’s good to be reminded that others feel the same things. Because we’re not supposed to talk about the real things unless it’s through the filter of an online personality where being real serves the purpose of garnering likes and validation. The real ‘real things’ require human contact, vulnerability, a willingness to accept the reality of another’s sympathy. They’re messy, so we hide them in dark places.
Some of Fisher’s female characters bring into the light things that women are not supposed to admit to. How they really feel about children. How sometimes cohabiting with a pet seems preferable to cohabiting with another person. How being in a long term relationship can lead to feeling that more of who you are is unknown than known.
Something that struck me about these ultra short stories was the way they created in me the same feelings I get from a particularly good song lyric. As much as I love a throwaway pop song, my heart belongs to the singer songwriters who can capture a truth about human existence and express it in a five minute song. There’s something bardic about Fisher’s writing, in the sense of being a storyteller who maintains the memory of the tribe, that is shared with the work of some singer songwriters. Fisher works in prose, but it’s prose that borders on the lyrical. Bards might not exist in the same way as they did in mediaeval times, but they are still among us, observing how we live, documenting it in flash fiction rather than in stories told around a fire or declaimed at a banquet. I’m going to nominate Fisher for a bardship.