Rating 4 stars
My first read for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, is a collection of contemporary short stories by Cornish writers. It arose from a Falmouth literature event called Telltales, where the book’s editors, Emma Timpany and Felicity Notley, met Nicola Guy, an editor with The History Press, and an anthology was born (http://www.cornishshortstories.org.uk/).
I bought the book from the independent bookshop Falmouth Bookseller while on holiday. I was looking for something that would give me a flavour of Cornwall now, and the bookshop display suggested that this anthology would fit the bill.
It opens with a poem, and why not? A poem is a short story, too. This one is about Dolly Pentreath, a woman who died in 1777 and is famed for being the last native speaker of the Cornish language. Katherine Stansfield’s poem reflects on the fact that the Cornish language is alive once more.
The collection includes writers at various points in their careers. Some are published, others prize winners, a few are at the beginning, writing for pleasure or studying creative writing. All know how to spin a good yarn.
The stories vary, too. There is a look back to the past in a few, sometimes incorporating ghosts, but most are contemporary, reflecting on how life is. Some make use of the Cornish landscape, others are more universal in their outlook. Of the latter, I have two favourites.
Tom Vowler’s story, ‘An Arrangement’, is a moving account of what happens in a marriage where one half of the couple has a debilitating illness. The narrator is there but almost not as the failings in his body start to cut him off from life. He and his wife have an arrangement. He loves her and doesn’t want to hold her back from living. The penultimate paragraph is heartbreaking in its truth, the final sentence evidence of how we compromise our deepest feelings.
‘Sonny’ by Rob Magnuson Smith is about a seagull that falls from the sky and captures the hearts of a childless and ageing couple. It’s a wickedly funny tale about our investment in animals and the insignificence we hold for them. Simon is cynical about the world, with hints dropped about pain caused in his childhood, and pursued a career as an architect in order to not feel insignificant. He knows he is lucky to be with Barry, a nurse who looks like Morrissey and is instantly adored by all who encounter him (unlike Morrissey). There’s a suggestion that Simon fears abandonment and has built a hard exterior to hide this truth from himself. This makes his inevitable surrender to the charms of Sonny the seagull all the funnier.
Among the ghost stories is a brilliantly funny tale by Anastasia Gammon. ‘The Haunting of Bodmin Jail’ reminded me of the BBC tv series Ghosts and Being Human in its irreverent take on things spectral. Jane is a tour guide at Bodmin Jail, creating souped up experiences for people who want to be scared safely. She’s also haunted by a ghost of her own, Ed, who behaves more like a flatmate than a ghost. One night, he insists that Jane gives him a jail tour and accidentally draws out a poltergeist. Jane’s attempt to open up a portal for the poltergeist to pass through has unintended repercussions. I particularly enjoyed this story because most of the ghosts are women and Gammon, although their appearance is brief, treats them sympathetically, like the people they once were. I appreciated, too, the balance struck between cynicism and sympathy.
‘Ballast’ is a beautiful piece of historical fiction by Sarah Thomas that celebrates the beginnings of female emancipation, as well as drawing on the maritime and horticultural history of Cornwall’s eastern coast. Its setting is the stretch of coast between Helford and Falmouth and the protagonist Maria Maddern’s nascent botanical garden might be modelled on Trebah. Thomas has captured both time and place perfectly in her story, along with a moving thread of humanity through the characters’ class-cutting relationships.
Some tales are of incomers, called emmets or blow-ins by the native Cornish. Other stories involve Cornish natives returning home after time away, living and working in towns and cities with different attitudes to life. Some return permanently, others go back to childhood haunts on holiday. All know that their time away from Cornwall has changed them, made them almost strangers.
A couple of the pieces consider grief. Elaine Ruth White’s ‘Hope of Recovery’ uses diving as its vehicle to get across the truth that nothing is sacred, nothing stays the same, including grief, including life. On ground, Meghan is paralysed in her grief for the loss of her partner Sarah. Beneath the waves, she is free to face up to death. The somber tone of this piece is lightened by a brief moment of comedy which gains Meghan some perspective.
Meghan’s love for Sarah is a love changed by death, and other stories capture other forms of love. There is first love, new love, secret love, settled and familiar love, love that has run its course, and the platonic love of friendship.
Three things struck me about this collection as I read, beyond the enjoyment of the stories, about how diverse the collection was. Of the 19 writers, 12 are women, which I see as a positive in a world where publishing is still skewed towards male authors. I was struck, too, by the natural inclusion of stories about gay and lesbian life, another positive that caused me to think about how things have changed in this regard within my lifetime. This thought was echoed in the story ‘Too Hot, Too Bright’ by S Reid, in which a secret love between two men that began in a time when prejudice against gay relationships was stronger, almost comes out into the open, in an era when sexual orientations other than straight are crusaded against only by a stubborn, unenlightened group of people. I tussled with my thinking, though, because I was still struck by it, meaning it can’t be the norm yet for LGBTQ+ writers to be included in this way, as part of a broad community. Or maybe I’m not reading widely enough. I tussled, as well, because part of me wanted to know if the authors were the same orientation as their characters, while another part of me thought it shouldn’t matter and to not be so nosy. The author bios at the back focus on the writing and the writers’ connection to Cornwall, more than on who the authors are. Perhaps that was deliberate, a way of keeping the anthology about the writing and not the people doing the writing. I then found myself wanting to know whether there were writers of colour among the authors. From their names, it’s a fair assumption that nobody is of Asian or Arabic heritage, from the stories it’s impossible to tell whether any of the writers are Black. I looked up Cornwall’s demographics. It’s a county that is 98% white. Not even a quarter percent of residents are Black, not even 1% are Asian. I’m going to say that this collection is 100% white in origin. It made me wonder how many writers of colour join the types of writing group that this collection emerged from, and whether these groups make efforts to welcome people beyond their own culture.
I really enjoyed this collection, though. There are some incredibly beautiful and moving works among the stories. It met my need to have a virtual holiday, in lieu of feeling able to get away, too, thanks to the descriptions of Cornwall’s land and seascapes.
See my list of 10 Books of Summer here.