New Welsh Review

Take a Bite: The Rhys Davies Short Story Award Anthology

Elaine Canning (ed)

Ed Garland on fiction that explores contemporary and perennial pressures, but is a little bland in terms of similarity of voice, and is strangely ordered to save the best stories until last

PUBLISHED ON: 24/11/21

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: Rhys Davies Short Story Award, abuse, birds, diverse, family, food, prizewinning, reinvention, rites of passage, short fiction

PUBLISHER: Parthian

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Take a Bite presents the top twelve entries in the 2021 Rhys Davies Short Story award, and its introduction promises us fiction that is ‘alive with character, voice, and language’. The anthology takes its title from Naomi Paulus’ winning entry, which begins the story sequence. The aunts of the protagonist, Rhian, have gathered to prepare for their mother’s funeral. With wit and precision, Paulus describes the multi-person dialogue between the four sisters, whose close bonds mean they do not ‘bother with greetings, or other meaningless pleasantries’. While Rhian observes their meal-making and listens to their conversation in the kitchen, another story unfolds between two of the quieter characters. With great narrative dexterity, Paulus threads an engrossing tale through a web of talk.

In the other stories, people experience a variety of pressures, both contemporary (Elizabeth Pratt’s lockdown isolation, Philippa Holloway’s mysteriously dead starlings) and perennial (Rosie Manning’s adolescent attractions, Joshua Jones’ drunken night out). About mid-way through my first reading of this collection, though, I began to have some difficulty distinguishing between the different writers’ voices. The events in the stories vary, and their settings change, but the prose styles are very closely related. So there’s the occasional sense that the individual stories are well-made, but the book as a whole can feel bland. (I read it in two gulps, taking the stories in their given sequence, hoping that they’d turn out to have been placed in this order for a reason. Perhaps multi-author short story collections are better when sipped, not gulped). But linguistic gems and moments of textual friction do stand out. Joshua Jones’ luminous tale of a New Year’s Eve, for example, is both carefully constructed and free-flowing, with confident grammatical leaps, like in this description of a crowd in a pub on New Year’s Eve: ‘When the countdown begins the young people rush in and they all stand there, everyone intermingled and chuffed and arms around shoulders.’ (I haven’t seen ‘chuffed’ in fiction for far too long.) And here’s the narrator of Phillipa Holloway’s ‘Juice’ describing some fruit in a bag: ‘Dominic stares at the apples; pale green, pink-tinged, leaves and stalks still attached’. A richly satisfying description that arrives at a heavily symbolic moment.

As I approached the end of the book, it seemed the most moving stories had been saved for last. Susmita Bhattacharya’s ‘The Truth is a Dangerous Landscape’ depicts two sisters’ decision to confront their parents about their experiences of sexual violence, which their parents would rather not discuss. The action moves between an unnamed town in West Bengal, where the sisters visit their relatives, and Cardiff, where they live. The two different settings are home to birds of narrative significance. In West Bengal, where the story’s tensions culminate, and where the sisters encounter predatory men, vultures are almost ever-present. But in middle-class Cardiff, where the sisters’ stories have not been heard, there are no pigeons or seagulls, ‘only blue tits and chaffinches in people’s landscaped gardens’. Bhattacharya develops the story’s tensions by offering us portions of the sisters’ histories while they prepare for a meal in the present. Thus we learn what is at stake in their courageous decision to confront their own family.

There is also a meal, of sorts, in the story that follows: Jupiter Jones’ ‘Bird’: but I don’t want to spoil it by telling you the details. The protagonist, Michael, wears his grandmother’s dress while camping in the woods to which he’s returned to scatter her ashes. He shares his story with a farmer, Bowen. In just a few pages, Jones brings a world to life as the two characters share a cup of tea.

The final story, Brennig Davies’ ‘Dogs in a Storm’, is the most formally inventive and linguistically exuberant. The protagonist, Mary-Ann, would rather be known as Marianne:

 

Marianne would live in London or Paris, editing magazines, wearing pantsuits so sharp they could cut; Mary-Ann lives in a cul-de-sac, owner of fifty sporks she knows she won’t use.

 

She begins the story by throwing out unwanted household objects, quickly progresses to ridding herself of the clutches of domestic reality, and becomes someone her family does not recognise. She wants to reconnect with her old friend Sally, but to do that, it seems, she must also disconnect from everything that keeps her in the cul-de-sac. Davies’ narration, while always remaining easy to follow, is a skilful whirl of parentheses, italics, dialogue and unspoken thoughts. So Take a Bite ends on a high, and delivers on its promise to feed us contemporary fictions that treat language as a living thing.

 

 

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’.