How are you? I wanted to tell you about a book I’ve been reading. I’ve been thinking about it and about you for a while.
You taught me to love physical books, the smell and the feel of them and I confess I’ve spent too long head-down, reading on devices and screens, words on grey-white backgrounds that glow blue into my face and stop me from sleeping. You taught me the excitement that I’ve only recently rediscovered, of opening a book, flicking through the pages and getting a thrill when the words jump off the page, skitter around it and break free from their paragraphs. When these moments happen I can’t stop myself from taking the book immediately to the bookseller or the librarian and saying, ‘Look! Look! Have you seen this?’ Lanny by Max Porter, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, Lincoln in the Bardot by George Saunders. I go to the bookseller or librarian when you’re not around.
But I want to tell to you about This Paradise by Ruby Cowling because flicking through the pages was like seeing the sun coming in through a stained glass window, a kaleidoscope of colour spread over the world. So many times I wanted to say, Dad look at this one! This one has stories sitting side by side on the same page. This one has a phone embedded in the page and text all twittering around it. Here’s another! And another!
I remember once you and I were in the car, out buying fish and chips, and you were telling me that the best writing is playful, that experiment for experiment’s sake can leave things cold and flat on the page. When I asked you for an example you couldn’t think of one. You said the play of words on the page is a key part of poetry but it’s a much rarer find in fiction which, at times, can play it too straight, too ‘real’. Sometimes fiction doesn’t play enough.
In This Paradise the playfulness of the text very much serves the stories and helps those stories to leap from the page and impose themselves upon you in unexpected ways. In ‘The Two Body Problem’ (my favourite story in the book) we have the voices of two sisters sat side by side on the page telling their story. They start out identical, each with the same opening line, ‘We are as close as we can possibly be’ but by the second sentence they are already moving apart and away from each other, as siblings do. The form of the two voices side by side immediately presents you with a problem, how are you meant to read this? Do you read one sister, then the other, page at a time? One sister’s sentence then the other’s equivalent sentence? Do you read one sister all the way through, then the other? ‘Thirteen summers swatting a Swingball around…then childhood falls behind us like a lifeboat cut adrift.’ And this takes us back to the way we read our first children’s books, ranging all over the page, rarely starting at the intended beginning and working all the way through. Reading to begin with was a much more challenging and distracted business.
‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted’ is the most textually ambitious piece in the book and, again, forces you into making active decisions as to how to read it, what to focus on first, enacting one of the key issues of focus that is at the heart of the story itself. Do you start with the main text? Do you discipline yourself to not read the sidebar text before you get to the end of the main text? It’s a piece which enacts our currently scatter-brained attention-spans. The way we read has changed since you and I went out to get chips, Dad. In this story we get different registers of the same voice, Yukako Inome, our newscaster narrator from Japan, practicing her English while reporting on ‘the politician’s wife disaster insult story’.
Look! Look! There’s the phone embedded in the story I told you about, the curved corners of the screen. And back when we went out to get chips phones didn’t have screens. ‘What’s up? Too much realism?’ gives us a knowing nod to the nature of this story itself. Look! A list of the Regular and Irregular Concerns of Mrs Susan Pike. What fun! We see the politician’s wife […] story from the inside and the outside, set within the context of a Japanese earthquake and a campaign for Nuclear Realism. It’s a long time since I’ve read a story with such incredible ambition and scope. As with The Two Body Problem, we have two women who ultimately come together with a simplicity which stands in counterpoint to the other complexities and challenges of the story, in this case they are united by the exchange of a Japanese throat soothing lozenge.
Then there’s the title story, where on first glance things seem to calm down a bit. Here we have a single focused narrative thread but where, as we follow, threats pile up from multiple angles: a gun in the hands of children, a deadly storm approaches an island paradise, catastrophe unfolds back home, tension in the family – the story is propelled by multiple threat vectors – and then the parents let their children go out in the storm. ‘Back in England, there was always the consoling thought of emigration.’
The range of the stories in This Paradise pushes at boundaries too. This isn’t a collection that focuses relentlessly on a single place and mines that place for material and nor does it focus on a single period of time. It is kaleidoscopic in that regard, refreshingly ambitious and daring. I’m going to bring a copy for you next time I make it home. I think you’ll love it as much as I do.
Grahame Williams is from County Down, Northern Ireland. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Lonely Crowd, The Letters Page and in 2014/15 he received an Arvon/Jerwood Mentorship for fiction writing. His current work in progress is a novel about a father, a son and the construction of a giant girl in the last of the Belfast shipyards.