REVIEW by Carla Manfredino

NWR Issue r7

Ritual 1969

by Jo Mazelis

What will a little girl be when she grows up? Will she learn to escape into a world with ‘no hands to catch her’, or has her education ended before it has even begun? These are some of the questions Jo Mazelis considers in her ebullient collection of short stories, Ritual 1969. The period is impressively wide-ranging; one moment we are in sixteenth-century England in ‘The Twice Pricked Heart’, then time leaps forward to 1940 and we are peering out of a window in Paris with nine-year-old Amanda in ‘The Flower Maker’. The perspective is also varied, we glimpse the mind of an old woman picking apples and reminiscing about a past love as well a sleepless reverend who cannot express his desire for love.

The array of voices and settings push each story into unfamiliar territory. Even the four stories with ‘1969’ in their title explore a different stage of the female’s journey. The first story, ‘Levitation 1969’, follows a group of schoolgirls on the cusp of change. As the teenager Margaret fears in ‘The Twice Pricked Heart’, it is the moment ‘cream becomes butter and its elemental nature is entirely changed and can never be changed back.’ Margaret is faced with the realisation that she is no longer a child and must make her own way in the world, which could be a blessing or a curse.

And it is not only a girls’ transition that is explored in the book. In ‘Mrs Dundridge’ the adolescent Gerald is in a relationship with the eponymous older woman who feels she is losing him as he grows into a man. Gerald is critical of Mrs Dundridge’s ageing too, and irritated by her reticence. Neither tells the other how they feel, and like true lovers, they understand one another in spite, only adding to the heart break.

Silence is a recurring theme and it can both inhibit and permit an escape for the characters. In ‘Biology 1969’, the teacher Miss Monica McKay is on her way to school when she has a bad experience. Choosing to keep it to herself, her shaken state is explained as ‘women’s troubles’ by her male colleagues. In ‘The Green Hour’ Gwen uses her body to protest ‘against silence’ as a life model for an older man she is in love with. Georgina and Charlotte are quite literally joined at the hip in ‘Mechanics’, yet by remaining silent to the insensitive provocations of others, they enable a spectacular flight at the end. In ‘Storm Dogs’, Dorothy’s suddenly raised voice disorientates her domineering husband, but his descent is ‘nothing like flying’.

Mazelis is gifted at evoking an eerie atmosphere that lingers between the real and the supernatural. Many of the stories end on a quiet, unsettling note. The ghostly landscape in ‘Bird Becomes Stone’, a reference to Andrew Wyeth’s painting ‘Christina’s World’ (1948), is set in Wales under the formidable shadows of Plunlumon. Pathetic fallacy heightens the suspense of Sarah’s situation, ‘opalescent pale clouds hung over head holding the world in silence’ and ‘white puffs of cumulus cloud moved lazily across a yawning blue sky.’ In ‘Word Made Flesh’, sleepless Molly Finnegan sees ‘Only the moon winking through beech trees’ from her window. These poetic descriptions elevate the muted tone of the tales and lend them their enigmatic quality.

The stories are threaded with apt allusions to literature, feminism and mythology. In ‘Ritual 1969’ a teacher introduces Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ to her class but they don’t know what a yew tree is. Like the tree in the poem, there seems to be only ‘blackness and silence’ for the disappointed teacher at the end. In the final story ‘Undone 1969’ the golden question is asked: ‘Who shall we be when we are grown?’: some will stay behind ‘like a trapped and dying bird’, while others fly away leaving only the sound of their beating wings.

Carla Manfredino is from Glan Conwy and is now studying an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s in London. She reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and is a reader for The White Review.

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