By Darran Anderson
Alasdair Gray recently spoke of his fascination with the works of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, explaining, to the effect, that in the paintings the end of the world took place in hospital waiting rooms, the Last Judgement in the high streets of small towns. It’s the commonplaceness of the backdrop and cast that set off the terror in Munch’s masterpieces. We recognise the abyss as just a few steps from the world of bus timetables, credit cards and gym membership. The idea that miracles and damnations are occurring all around, as we tick off each mundane domestic triviality, is the backbone of the singular collection Before The Rain. These are everyday stories, only that day is the day your life falls apart, when the opera side of the soap opera makes itself known.
Assembled by Sarah Hymas, Before The Rain brings together three up-and-coming writers in Peter Wild, Mollie Baxter and Thomas Fletcher. It would be counterproductive to list their bios and credits; what matters is the writing. And if the finest compliment you can give to a writer is that they created something that lived on in your mind, spun images that were impossible to forget than all three are genuine compelling talents.
Deceptively subtle and psychologically astute, Peter Wild’s writing has the power to blindside you when least expected. His are tectonic narratives where the surface is tranquil but underneath the pressure is mounting uncontainably. Keenly observed, all the action takes place off-screen but it’s the absences, the “before and after moments” that affect most. The traditional setting of murder ballads, ‘Down By The River’ is the backdrop for a misguided youth on the cusp of momentous change or disaster. In ‘Her Stick Figure,’ Wild encapsulates the aftermath of conflict in a child’s drawing “on a wall that may be bombed at some time in the future… ashy silhouettes left in the rock by the blast of Pompeii.” By comparison, the past of ‘Lebensraum’ is further away in time but just as traumatic. What they all adeptly investigate is the inescapable nature of not just the past but also the future. The idea that far from doing or becoming what we choose, we’re locked into some kind of inexorable destiny.
A crucial theme in Wild’s stories is silence and the secrets therein. There’s the war veteran’s concealed history in ‘Lebensraum,’ the unspoken birth name long since changed, the sudden unannounced flight to the north. In ‘Punk Rocker’ it’s the silence that is a necrosis in matters of the heart, the difference in what is thought and what is said that irretrievably poisons relationships. Every line of ‘Garage Gerbil’ seems heavy with the weight of pent-up knowledge. The proficiency with which Wild layers the stories is never in doubt (the intricacy of a failing relationship in ‘Punk Rocker,’ for example, is painted with almost painfully accurate detail) but just as commendable is the bravery involved. He says what we are told shouldn’t be said but know, deep down, must. The idea of a mother-to-be regretting her pregnancy and fantasising about the child’s death seems an unthinkable taboo (“This is not my Beautiful Wife”) but it undoubtedly happens. Similarly the ambiguity of a Nazi collaborator being not a devil but simply someone “who fought on the wrong side” is something we’re not allowed to entertain. Wild’s writing cuts through the artificiality of correctness and invites a mass of uncomfortable questions. It may be disconcerting but it’s a mark of his spirit and ability that he not only raises the issues but gives them a momentum that spans beyond the pages.
Whilst her talents abound, an abiding characteristic of Mollie Baxter’s writing, that raises her tales into the level of real greatness, is her ability to pull off the unexpected. Rather than the road less travelled, it’s a road cleaved through the thicket. Every literary cliché, every predictable turn of phrase and plot transition is avoided and subverted. Her take on mental illness through the theme of colour (‘Colour Fractions’) is one from an utterly new angle, as poignant and sympathetic, as it is inspired. What you think you see coming is not what arrives.
Never lacking in emotional resonance, her inventive and bona fide accounts culminate with the multi-voiced ‘The Weight of Water.’ To describe the twists and turns, the elegiac language and the astonishing unanticipated perspectives in detail would diminish the piece. What it sets out is an extraordinary form of urban (sur-)realism, peopled by characters that do not fit into any conventional definition of the world. Even a tale as unadorned and nostalgic as ‘Slugs and Snails’ has characteristically incisive touches that put a unique unforgettable spin on it, “I haven’t seen him since he died. He seemed the sort of person that would be a ghost. I’ve been training myself not to be scared if he appears.”
Arriving with a startling untitled Paul Auster-echoing introduction, Thomas Fletcher’s stories are similarly creative, shadowy and category-defying. Within them, you enter the minds of people not so much on the margins but completely cut adrift. The fearful restrained menace of ‘Depth Perception’ explodes into the bedlam of ‘The Bird in the Back of my Head.’ With ‘Fell’, Fletcher weighs humour and repulsion, tabloid horror and a haunting symbolism, all narrated by a character whose reliability, as an honest sane witness, is highly questionable. Expanding beyond its succinct predecessors, ‘The Skin That She Bit’ is a fragmentary tale of undergraduate life, where students continue in their usual mix of inertia and directionless hedonism while weddings are bombed from the air, children stab each other to death and women give birth to frogs. Again when you think nothing in particular will happen, it shifts and detours into the fortean. His final piece ‘A Steak for Don’ reads like a postscript to the whole book, the punchline if you will. That it is at once funny, vexing, odd and lyrical is fitting given what’s come before.
Secrets, madness, lycanthropy, alienation. Not the typical ingredients for an inspiring read but this is no ordinary collection. Before The Rain‘s startling tableaux combined with its authentic settings and dialogue make for an impressive introduction, it’s ordnance survey design charting the heights and depths of human experience and pointing the way to three highly promising literary futures.
Before The Rain, Peter Wild, Mollie Baxter, Thomas Fletcher
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.