REVIEW by Stevie Davies

NWR Issue r26

Arrest Me, for I Have Run Away

by Suzy Ceulan Hughes

Stevie Davies is one of our finest contemporary authors, and it’s a pleasure to see some of her short fiction collected here for the first time. Better known as a novelist, and for her academic publications, Davies is also a master of the short form. Several of the stories included in this collection have been long- and short-listed for prizes, published in journals (including New Welsh Review) and anthologies, as well as being broadcast on the radio.

The collection opens with the previously unpublished ‘The World When We Abandon It’ – a brilliant, spine-tingling story of loss and grief. Violet and Jamie’s holiday climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – ‘Thousands of people climb Kili every year; how hard can it be?’ – ends catastrophically. Although he’s only thirty, Jamie is clearly already ill, and the climb and the altitude precipitate his sudden death. Violet, bereft, suffers severe survivor guilt. The holiday was her idea; Jamie didn’t really want to go. She keeps all his clothes for eight years. She hallucinates him alive. She dices with death… Davies has her finger on the pulse of grief, and is acute in her portrayal of the coping mechanisms we deploy. In ‘The Wolf Tone’, when Eva commits suicide, it is her cello rather than her clothes that Aidan cannot bear to part with: it harbours the essence of the woman he has lost, though he also holds ‘the corrupted instrument’ responsible for her death. ‘Twin spirits, equally crazed, inhabit Aidan: the one that jettisons relics of Eva’s existence with an odd, impure sense of exultation, the other who creeps downstairs at night to rescue treasures like Eva’s reading glasses, with her thumb print still on the lens and a single hair caught in the joint of the frames.’ Here is the madness of grief, captured in a single sentence.

Musical instruments – often associated with memories and the healing of grief – are pivotal in several stories. In ‘Tuner of Llangyfelach’, Owen and Tia share a journey into the past when he comes to tune the piano she has inherited from her grandmother, which was also the last piano Owen’s father tuned before he died. The things they know, their memories and perspectives, are different and, in sharing them, they both reach a clearer view of the people they have lost. The image of the old piano tuner taking Tia’s grandmother sea swimming when she was eighty – ‘basking out there, floating on their backs, water like a millpond, chatting away presumably’ – is one that will stay with me. As will that of her literally burning all her savings, ‘a fortune in twenty- and fifty-pound notes’, to stop her adult children (‘greedy bloodsuckers’) getting their hands on the money.

Relationships between parents and children, and the impact childhood has on the rest of our lives, form another recurring theme. As the piano tuner says, ‘And no matter what comes later, Tia, if you’ve enjoyed such childhood security, nothing mars it.’ Not all of Davies’ characters are as lucky. In ‘Bead’, Ellen remembers her ex-husband, who punched her in the stomach when she was pregnant and suffering from terrible morning sickness; as a child, he had felt abandoned by his step-mother because she was ill. ‘He was a man possessed by the terror of abandonment and the urge to punish it. His character was pulped and corrupted by childhood sorrow.’ She is left with a sense of shame for having colluded so long with his bad behaviour by making excuses for him, but at least she got out before the damage could be passed down to another generation. Chris, in ‘Ground-Nester’, took longer to leave and is consumed by guilt about his own bad parenting, clearly seeing its effect on his daughter and trying hard to make good in his relationship with his grand-daughter. Here, and throughout the collection, Davies takes us deep into her characters’ psychological territories, ‘the underground places of the heart’.

Davies’ psychological insight and emotional intelligence are matched with a quiet erudition. There are two stories that stand out especially for the latter, and for their enormous humanity. They are both set in Egypt during the Second World War, and perhaps it is precisely the distance in time and space that gives an even greater clarity of vision. They are ‘Red Earth, Cyrenaica’ and ‘Oud, 1942’. These I shall return to again and again. They are about love, requited and yet lost. And yet never lost. ‘Lacrymae rerum: the tears of things.’ Davies is gentle on grief and the magical thinking that accompanies it, on the long slow process of letting go, with the deceased always holding a special place in the heart, both in the past and in the present. Her wisdom and empathy shine throughout.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes is a writer and translator. Her most recent short story is included in Wandrian (Aberystwyth University MA Anthology 2018), sold in aid of MIND Aberystwyth.

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previous review: No Good Brother
next review: Staring Back at Me


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