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This is an exceptional award-winning collection of short stories by an exceptionally gifted writer. The sort you never want to end. And when they do, they stay, having made a remarkable impression.

Published in 2016 by Jonathan Cape, part of Penguin Random House, the synopsis sums up the book beautifully:

The Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of fiction.

Each story is unique, exquisitely and lovingly rendered. ‘Starver’ and ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ bookend the collection. In the first we find Katy, the eel-girl, her transformation told by her sister as Katy refuses humanistic needs to become something else:

They kept giving her oxygen. I wanted to tell them it wouldn’t work, it was no good. She was drowning in air. At night I brought her bowls of water, lowered her face in, watched the bubbles, saw how she came up just about smiling.

‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ returns us to water, where the keeper discovers an unusual being one day while out on the rocks trying to retrieve an umbrella:

The fish came cresting up. It was narrow-bellied when it rolled to curse her, the dark flesh sliding off to white before it reached the stomach; the eyes, when it lolled frontwards and ogled her, round as marbles. She stood watching the lope of it, the way it surfed up to jaw wordlessly at her.

In between, the richness continues. We meet further fantastical creatures, some human, others not so much, but all with a sense of purpose, an allusivity made real and gleaming you want to pocket it and keep it. This is, without a doubt, one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Makes me want to explore turning poetry into another way of being.

The Mildura Writers Festival – what an amazing whirlwind experience! I say whirlwind because we drove for about 10 hours for me to attend 2 sessions totaling 3 hours, thankfully with an overnight stay! Next year better planning’s required, mainly signing up for the whole weekend but anyway, it was well worth the drive.

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The first session I managed to sneak into just before it started, having totally forgotten about the half hour time difference, was Peter Goldsworthy’s chat with Sharon Olds. Peter began by asking Sharon how she came to write and so she explained at one point she used to speak to her friend in sonnets after studying Shakespeare at 14, and started writing out of love for it along with music and rhythm, soon having a preference for 6 beats per line. Sharon felt she wasn’t suited to become a scholar having failed her dissertation, and would happily give up everything she’d learnt to write poems, adding that she had, in fact, learnt very little! And this was just one example of Sharon’s gorgeous sense of humour collapsing the audience into laughter.

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Sharon went onto confess she only wrote good poetry after writing a lot of bad poetry and had some nasty rejection letters, one from a literary magazine that replied if you want to write about your children, we suggest a women’s magazine a better fit! And that’s what Sharon is, a family poet, writing about a range of human wealth some find confrontational, a bit too close for comfort. When writing Stag’s Leap published by Jonathan Cape in 2012, Sharon explained she didn’t feel she was still under the vow of marriage and so could write about this very personal experience with a poetic rawness. She added it doesn’t matter if a poem makes her feel vulnerable, as long as it has emotional gravity.

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Sharon read a couple of poems during the session and ended with ‘Ode to the Hymen’, a piece that was both funny and poignant generating loud hysterics that ebbed into thoughtful silence. And that is the power and magic of Sharon. Listening to her was divine, she is such a beautiful person and I wished the session had been longer, but I was absolutely thrilled to have her sign my copy of Stag’s Leap and felt she shared with us all a certain sense of peace, quiet in its power.