New Welsh Review
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All of the stories are set in the same small town, and Hughes brings the various locations to life in a brisk and witty narrative voice. We visit the cemetery, the crematorium, the supermarket, and spend time in people’s houses and back gardens. But the regular references to stars and planets and galaxies lend a cosmic background to the everyday dramas. So at the same time that the stories explore the resonances between ageing and love, or illness and sex, we also end up reflecting on the distance between Andromeda and Debenhams.
Hughes keeps her sentences short, but expands into agile flourishes when the story demands. Like in ‘God and the Runt’, when the earnest boy Rhidian forgets his usual evening prayer for his ailing gran, and she dies. Afterwards, he stands in his house’s small cloakroom and ‘tries to make his eyes see behind the stars, behind the black sky behind the stars, behind the big drop behind the black sky behind the stars.’ He believes her death is his fault, and he can’t make it right, and this attempt to encompass the whole universe with his mind so that he might encounter his God is one of Pain Sluts’ most affecting scenes.
At times, the collection reminded me of Deborah Kay Davies’ stories, in the way the narrators speak of intense and troubling bodily experiences while not shying away from the potential for humour. In the titular [no pun intended] story, fifty year-old Elaine fantasises about a double mastectomy, simply because she feels her breasts ‘have outgrown their relevance and purpose’. After she buys a compression bra that she hopes will also compress ‘her feelings’, she begins to lactate. Then she thinks ‘she has brought her breasts back to life. She is the Dr Frankenstein of tits but in a good way.’ She makes other physical changes, too, and the story brilliantly encapsulates the way her decisions affect the subtle social tensions within her small group of friends.
Hughes knows when to use a textual trick for an enjoyable effect. Like in ‘Ysgyryd’, when Eleanor’s mother dies, and three weeks later she gets a dog. For most of the story, this dog remains nameless, reflecting the way in which it didn’t provide her with the companionship she wanted. Instead, she is unsettled by the way it ‘always followed her like a shadow’. She feels ‘the weight of the dog’s body on the arch of her foot as she tried to watch television, heightening her awareness of a sickly low-voltage restlessness, flickering through the circuits of her mind.’ We only learn the dog’s name when Eleanor makes an emotional breakthrough and is able to feel differently towards it.
For all their peculiarities, Hughes’ characters are never zany, or weird for the sake of weirdness. They are all entirely believable, brought to the page with a realism that reminds us how strange our families and neighbours can be, and how often we might choose, like some of the characters, to reconnect with ourselves when we feel ‘oddly detached’ or ‘strangely distant’. One of the best things about Pain Sluts is the way its varieties of dissociation and discomfort can prompt us to reconsider our attitudes towards affection and care.
Ed Garland’s Earwitness: A Search for Sonic Understanding in Stories, was published on New Welsh Review’s Rarebyte imprint in 2019. He was the winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection with the kernel of that book, ‘Fiction as a Hearing Aid’.