João Morais

NWR Issue 103

A Snow Goose & Other Utopian Fictions

You would expect a debut collection of short stories written by an award-winning travel writer to be full of vivid descriptions of various bleak yet beautiful landscapes, and in A Snow Goose, Jim Perrin does not disappoint. This sense of place is best articulated in his first two stories, which are thematically similar in that the imperialist outsider protagonists are saved by the natives in the land they aim to explore. Perrin is undoubtedly expressive in his pictorial intimacy

However, love does seem to come far too easy to the characters in other stories. In ‘Incident at Mew Stone Point’, Bob meets a woman in a West London pub, before going on a climbing trip. She then just happens to turn up in the Pembrokeshire inn near to where he is staying. She also 'just happens' to be a climber, too. By the end of the climbing weekend, they are not only an item but have plotted the rest of their lives together. It is all very cosy.

This is the type of happy convenience that makes the writing of a short story a much easier task in the first few drafts, as the characters get to know each other. However, writing from such a serendipitous viewpoint does have its drawbacks: it also produces the kind of ‘and then they lived happily ever after tale that has no central conflict to keep the narrative flowing.

That’s my main concern with Perrin’s fiction. His characters find it too easy to collaborate with each other. I get that humans in general are rather nice beings, but without conflict or the differings of opinions and values, the reader is naturally going to feel a little sceptical and maybe even a bit cheated.

A similar problem occurs in ‘The Burning’. Its subtitle describes it as a Jungian comedy, when it occasionally feels like a comedy for all the wrong reasons. Consider the two main characters, Bryn and Bethan. At one point, they have only known each other for around thirty-six hours, yet they too have already decided to spend the rest of their lives together. Bethan will leave Goldsmiths and all the excitement of London (while still only halfway through her degree) in order to start a course in Librarianship in Aberystwyth, just so she can be closer to her new fancy-man. She also tells us the following: ‘And by the way, if you're going to be staying with me in Porthaur we’d better stop stop somewhere and use this money your aunt gave me to buy some condoms.... Later on, we find out that they bought 135. Keep in mind that this is for two weeks. Can you imagine the look on the face of the poor chapel-and-hearth chemist when asked to go out the back to get even more boxes because there wasn’t enough on the shelves? And the bill (at 1975 prices) would be about as painful as Bethan’s cystitis after this preposterous two-week shagathon.

Indeed, this is a story that certainly wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. Take this conversation between Aunt Eleri and Bethan (and please be aware that they;ve known each other for maybe ten days at this point):

Even right to the end, and for all that I knew what he'd likely been up to, there'd be times when I’d go all wet down there just setting eyes on Cad {her husband}.

Oh I know, Aunt Eleri – I’ve only got to look at Bryn and I go all squishy and just want him inside me. It’s the same thing, isn’t it? He was telling me up on the mountain about a woman made of flowers without conscience, and all the time I was wondering how conscience was supposed to co-exist with a wet fanny.

As with all of Perrin’s dialogue, it does not sound natural. This technique works wonderfully well in ‘After the Fall’, the utpoian fantasy in which the Yetis (an indigenous spiritual tribe, rather than a collection of mythic snow beasts) of the Himalayas communicate telepathically with a sort of universal, standardised language – but elsewhere, as in the case here with ‘The Burning’, each sentence sounds contrived. Add to the fact that Bryn and Aunt Eleri regularly go off on a tangent for a page at a time for no other reason than to get a culturist-nationalist point across and you are left with the empty feeling of having wasted time reading something which has done nothing to further either the plot or any supposed character development.

Not that we can entirely blame Perrin for this blight on an otherwise strong collection: it should have been spotted at the editorial stage. Luckily, Perrin pulls it back with ‘The Eyas’, a savage parable about the price we must pay for greed. A boy plans to steal a peregrine falcon chick from the nest of its fearsome mother. Can he plan a successful coup, or will his arrogance in ignoring the old man who worked at the quarry where the falcons live get the better of him? On home ground again, Perrin leaves no doubt as to where his skills lie – in the setting and inhabiting of a scene of nature. If he sticks to this as his core muse in the future instead of writing convenient romances then I would look forward to a second collection.

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