New Welsh Review
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Before the 1900s, people used to assemble makeshift lamps called sluts. The OED definition offers supporting evidence from Anne Ellis’ Life of an Ordinary Woman: ‘Mama would fill a bowl with melted grease, then braid or twist pieces of rag, putting one end in the grease, lighting the other, and thus making a very good light.’ I mention this because one of the striking features of Sian Hughes’ Pain Sluts is its attention to peculiar lights and strange visions. There is a fluorescent tube that ‘whirrs and flickers like some living organism, making the light unpredictable’. After two characters survive a car crash, ‘everything seems blurry and unreal, but also more real than ever […] in maximum resolution, the colours defined, the focus sharp, crystal clear.’ In the story ‘Consumed’, when a sonographer tells the pregnant protagonist, Amy, that her baby is present but its heartbeat can’t be found, it is described as ‘an anomaly Amy can’t process, like seeing the light from a dead star’. What follows in this story is as touching as it is unsettling – a tale of what it means to consume and be consumed, but also a high-definition glimpse into the unbridgeable distances that can grow between two people who used to be intimate. The adjectives ‘touching and unsettling’ would also apply to most of the other stories in this excellent collection. I’m going to try not to give away too much of the actual events, which are frequently startling, but always in a way that illuminates character. While these characters do very sharp and painful things to themselves and each other, we learn more about how to navigate discomfort.
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.