REVIEW by Robert Walton



by Nigel Jarrett

A few minutes into Nigel Jarrett’s début collection of short stories, Funderland I turn the page and gasp: ‘Oh no, it can’t end so soon.’ I’ve already reached the final double-page of the title-story and the outcome of Dale and Carol’s tentative relationship really matters. But Jarrett’s lucid, evocative style turns those final two pages into a moving resolution in which the cadences of feeling are subtly, powerfully captured. At the foot of the stairs in the cottage they’ve rented after a fairground tragedy, they recognise that they are not just survivors but significant presences in each other’s lives.

This is not to give the ending away. A single sentence early in the story – ‘As handfuls of soil thudded on the coffin lids and a breeze blew, he caught a whiff of her perfume’ – not only typifies the best of his ability to suggest sensory experiences with such ease, but also establishes the desire for a new beginning which the remainder of the story ‘Funderland’ sets out to fulfil. And it does so, deftly, as it charts the doubts, fears, uncertainties, needs and dreams of emerging new passion.

‘Funderland’ is a fine opening story which sets the central theme of this collection: family relationships put to the test by encounters with friends, acquaintances and strangers, often in new locations. From a range of viewpoints, we see families drifting apart, generations at odds with each other, new bonds being formed, the beginnings of estrangement, adults clinging to their memories and myths being challenged. While many of the characters try to suppress their feelings, wary of what lies ahead, Jarrett draws upon their memories, observations and reflections to reveal the tectonic plates of relationships, grinding against each other beneath the surface.

In ‘Cherry Hill’, the narrator is a recent widow taking refuge in a beautifully evoked Provence. Attempting to come to terms with her grief, she encounters an eccentric pair of ex-pats, Bee and Mavis, much given to Wilde-like maxims. ‘I find pilgrimages so arduous,’ says Bee. ‘Not the religious sort. I mean journeys to the countries of the heart.’ This is the territory that all Jarrett’s characters travel but the journey brings unexpected revelations. In the course of this meeting, the widow has to admit how much her husband irritated her: ‘It’s just that the differences between couples which early on are submerged by desire ultimately become the source of hostility.’ For the first time, she recognises the changes which had occurred without her ever realising it.

If the stories take us through states of transition, the characters are invariably placed in transit. In the disturbing ‘Watching the Birdie’, teenager Kate makes a genuine attempt to accept the revolting habits of her new stepbrother and the extrovert behaviour of her step-father, Mr Charlton, with his clichés and conjuring tricks. When the car-journey finally ends at their holiday-home in Barnstaple, Mr Charlton takes advantage of the bedroom-arrangements to try out more sinister tricks. The final image of Kate’s bewilderment and vulnerability is touchingly achieved as she watches her stepfather’s hands: ‘She didn’t know how to answer, what to answer.’ Her isolation in the face of uncertainty is a condition that many characters in this collection experience.

Cultural isolation and division is explored in several stories, most notably the Rhys Davies Award-winning ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’, a superbly crafted tale of the wife of a Japanese businessman walking through the Brecon Beacons as she reflects upon an affair she has embarked upon. She is out of place in every sense of the word yet the tranquillity of the hills allows her to feel at home. Characteristically, Jarrett introduces moments of ironic humour such as the time when her husband leads her across the bedroom to a distant view of snow-capped hills. ‘Mount Fuji!’ he cries, excited by the vision of a familiar image, totally oblivious to his wife’s affair.

While ‘Uncle Kaiser’ explores the racist legacy of British imperial power in India through a series of undated diary-type entries alternating between London and Bombay, it is one of the less convincing stories: its first person narrative does not achieve a convincing consistency and individuality of voice. Strangely, I found this to be the case with a number of the stories told in the first-person: ‘Nomad’, ‘A Point of Dishonour’ and the macabre, epistolary ‘The Lister Building’. The characters slip into abstract statements that betray their voice. ‘He was right about Nick, but in a way that must always make the recipients of that kind of observation feel ever so slightly inferior: out of the race, as it were, or even a non-runner.’ This kind of remark, from Morley in ‘The Lister Building’, could be attributed to several of the narrators, or indeed the author himself.

On the other hand, when Jarrett adopts third person narration, his stories become more convincingly modulated as the gears shift between past and present, inner and outer experience, one perspective and another. This is true of ‘Funderland’, ‘Mrs Kuroda’ and the restrained passion of ‘Grasmere’. The latter is a real treat of a story in which, again on holiday, Millie feels herself moving away from her husband, and closer to her daughter, while retaining childhood memories of her brother who might turn up at any moment. The sense of landscape and nature as stimuli to Wordsworthian remembrance of those ‘seeds in time’ is beautifully achieved, without artifice, leaving the reader with a sense of expectation and possibility.

This is, indeed, how I feel about Nigel Jarrett’s collection as a whole. Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.

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previous review: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals
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