Reviewed by Steve Redwood
Just a few comments on Marion Arnotts collection Sleepwalkers, recently out from Elastic Press.
First, the book itself is very attractively produced , a great improvement on the first two book in the new Elastic Press series (in production values: the fiction by Andrew Hook and Andrew Humphrey is also excellent), and selling much cheaper (six pounds including p&p) than most small press books.
The title story is not really typical of the whole, but the title itself is well chosen the protagonists of most of the stories are in a sense sleepwalking. Most obviously, Nowicki in Fortunes Favourite and the waitress in Angel are completely asleep to present reality. These are not, for me, the strongest stories. The studies are interesting and subtle, but I really do doubt that such blind optimism in the face of all the evidence ever really exists. Angel, especially, is almost a caricature. Yes, the point being made is true people desperate for love will try to overlook faults and omens but this one is laid on a bit too thick. Fortunes Favourite (with a wonderfully ironic closing line) is not quite so easily dismissed, since what was happening really was (and is) almost unbelievable, and Nowicki has come through so many other disasters. And even in these two (for me) less successful stories, we see one of Arnotts main strengths the gradual accumulation of tiny details that change our perception and finally add up to a horrific reality.
Another kind of sleepwalking is to live with false or repressed memories. This is the case of Charlie in the brilliant Dollface, which is almost a novella. Arnold takes a standard plot device someone speaking from the dead but dont be put off by that, the story itself is anything but fantasy. I wont tell the story (of this, or any other) in order not to deprive potential readers of what is, after all, the greatest joy of reading the finding out of what happens/happened next. Arnott may dissect personalities with superb skill, have not uncommon themes mainly, cruelty by man to man (and especially, to woman and child) but what makes her work so good is simple (which isnt simple at all!) old-fashioned story-telling. Almost like detective stories. In Dollface, what is detected is a situation from the past almost elemental but at the same time complex and extremely painful as we see extreme jealousy and the manipulation of a child. The way the child innocently earns pennies is terrifying in its implications. And yet, somehow, at the end of it all, the memory of some black swans gives a kind of meaning to all the horror.
In Marbles the memories, however, arent false. Again, its difficult to discuss the story without giving away anything lets say, it too involves the manipulation of a child, and the scars that this leaves in adult life. Again, an excellently-crafted story, though not for me as compelling (or convincing: would not a seven-year-old girl talk?) as Dollface.
Or as Prussian Snowdrops, now deservedly famous. Here, the protagonist (again in Nazi Germany, a small provincial part of it) is forced to stop sleepwalking, as he (and we) discover the practical realities of the theories of eugenics. I say, and we. We already know (historically) what Karl does not but so great is Arnotts skill that its still shock after shock as we learn what we already know. I read somewhere that Jeff VanderMeers marvellous City of Saints and Madmen is going to be taught in some American universities: so should Prussian Snowdrops! It knocks spots off some of the old anthologised chestnuts! And it might teach some of those machine-made MA's in a strange insect called 'Creative Writing' that a story should still be a story, not just an exercise in listing details that lead to nothing. Perhaps its greatest virtues are showing the peril that comes from the seemingly ridiculous small man, and the nature of the informant in this particular case, a woman of limited intelligence who doesnt really realise what she knows. And the worst turn of the screw is the way she also is finally betrayed.
As for Sleepwalkers itself, shades of Brighton Rock, but with feeling. Once again, domestic violence leading in later life to a desire to inflict that violence on others. I sense that it is literary rather than real, but powerful for all that, as the girl pushes on her protector to prove his invincibility. I believe Arnott is a schoolteacher lets hope her students dont take her too literally!
Abuse again in Princess short but memorable, as a monster looks in a distorting mirror and sees only a man filled with the finest emotions. More manipulation, but this time the manipulator cannot see his crime.
The remaining stories are all very readable, each with a very clear point to make in three of the cases again showing how horrible we men can be. And there is one bitter story , A Small Miracle, which reveals that perhaps the author will not weep when the present Pope dies! Neither will I!
Often, when picking up a magazine or small press production, we, maybe subconsciously, feel that this is OK, but not quite the real thing. Its not OHenry or Maupassant, or Lawrence. And all too often, sadly, especially in the horror field, far too many stories are published which indeed clearly reveal that the author has not the slightest feel for, or love of, language. They throw in the word cunt to show how avant-garde they are. Arnott ends a story ('Underground') with the same word, and its strong and ironic and pitiful and accusatory. But, also, many classic stories are, frankly, like watered-down shandy compared to Arnotts tough Scotch whisky (whiskey? I can never remember. Maybe because of too much whisky/whiskey?). No, I dont believe all the stories are super duper wonderful, but many of them are, and I strongly recommend this book...
even if there does seem to be an inordinate amount of snow in it, showing that the unfortunate author comes from freezing Scotland instead of sunny Devon as I do!
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