Rating 3 stars
Book 7 of my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge
Eley Williams’ debut collection of short stories, published three years ago, explores the precision and elusiveness of language.
At its best, Williams’ writing is woozy and other worldly. She stretches, twists and folds language into unexpected shapes. She plays with form and structure so that her narratives resemble the weirdness and variety of everyday existence, both bumblingly mundane and searingly brutal.
There’s also an underlying naivety to Williams’ writing style that made sense when I read her biographical information and saw that she teaches children’s literature. Her writing has an innocence to it that seems to draw on a distant time and has echoes of the language used in children’s books, where words are portals to imaginary realms but retain one foot in reality.
The story about the boy whose father runs a paintshop is an example of this. The prose called me back to the books I read as a child, books by writers like Dorothy Edwards, Judith Kerr, Ursula Moray Williams. The later Williams, Eley, author of these stories, put me in a time before smartphones with feeling her words created, and it was a jolt when the boy in ‘Swatch’ used his father’s phone to look up a word to help him understand the shifting colours of his eyes.
As a child, I loved the dictionary. I loved finding words and trying to understand them. As an adult, I sometimes miss the richness of language, especially as someone who works in a sector scared to challenge its audience with the full breadth of language, so that I have to edit out words whenever someone proofing my work says they had to look them up. But that’s the point, surely? Or we are forcing a false aphasia on the people around us. Apparently, if we use words that people haven’t encountered before, without defining them, we will put them off. Am I part of an unusual tribe, then? Is it so unusual these days to be intrigued and delighted by language? Has it always been unusual? Is it more usual to be scared of seeming stupid when unfamiliar words appear?
There are words in this collection that I knew once but had forgotten, because language use in the public realm is so reduced these days. I had to look them up. Lucky me. That spark of recognition for a word temporarily lost to me, restored, is a gift from the writer.
Between these pages are stories of love, loss and yearning, of frustration, joy and despair. The stories are short, never outstaying their welcome, but they are also full and rich with living. With each one, it feels as though you have read something substantial.
‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’ contains an entire world of hope, defensiveness, love, lust and petty revenge, set against the backdrop of the illegal cooking and serving of ortolan. If you’ve watched season 1 of Succession, ortolan is the dish eaten by Tom and Greg as part of Tom teaching Greg to eat like he’s rich. It’s a songbird cooked and eaten whole with the diner wearing a napkin over their head. Williams’ story makes the horror of this dish both causative and incidental to the disintegration of a relationship.
The protagonists in these tales are often distracted, or employ avoidance tactics, diverting themselves with words, playing with language to avoid saying anything meaningful. Their attention span is sometimes too short for their words to make sense, running into each other with half expressed notions and feelings, smiling brightly the whole time, desperate to be accepted.
There’s a restlessness to the writing that meant I sometimes struggled to sink into the world Williams was creating, uncomfortable with the narrator’s discomfort.
I suppose what Williams is going for is how difficult words are, how difficult communication is, how precise what we feel can be and how elusive the way we express it.
It’s an interesting collection, the writing is clever, but I didn’t fully connect with it. Although, the moments when I did connect were gems of sheer brilliance that transported me completely.
If you want to read something a little different, it’s definitely worth a look.