Review of “Don’t Try this at Home”. By Angela Readman
A couple of blog posts ago, I reviewed Fables, a work published by Pigeonhole books. Since I liked that work, they emailed me asking if I would like to see more of their output. I chose to look at two works. The first, of which, Don’t Try this at home will review in this post. The publishers kindly sent me a copy of the work in exchange for an honest review.
As I stated in the review of Fables, Pigeonhole Books release their work in a different manner to most other publishers. They release books in a serialized form, releasing “staves” of the work at regular intervals.
I believe that this publishing method may be a good model for short story collections like “Don’t Try This At Home”, works that have beautifully lyrical prose and/or an experimental structure/writing style. These books deserve time to percolate into the brain. If gorged in one single sitting: you will miss the nuance of the writing, each story will bleed into each other, they may seem repetitive, and you may feel bloated as if you have eaten too many rich chocolates. This method of slow release, almost rationed publishing slows the speed-reader, like me, down, making us take more time over each story.
These stories are linked by a shared writing style and language play. The writing is at the same time sparse and lyrical. The following, from the story contextual, is a good example of this:
“My mother invited the kids to my birthday party. She shook hands with other parents from behind a canvas. We cut cake to throw at billboards. I blew out a candle and wished we could have normal parties. I wanted to wear Nike or Topshop like everyone else. But when the guests left and it was just us, we were happy. Never bored, we spent winter evenings catching the moon in a bucket a hundred times.” P8.
You get a very sparsely written, matter of fact description, of a party followed by the beautiful phrase “Never bored, we spent winter evenings catching the moon in a bucket a hundred times.” P8
The first, title story, of this collection has received a lot of attention from reviewers. Therefore, I will focus on three other stories, starting with ‘Before the Song’. This story puts the reader in the head of a young girl living on a rural semi-isolated farm. The character speaks in vernacular dialect. Which, while distancing some readers from the story, actually works to put you squarely in the characters head;
“The mornin’ slipped by. Small flies floated in my eye, spottin’ the landscape. I looked towards the house and squished it between my fingers like a bug. The preacher crossed the plain on foot, waving thanks to the pick-up he’d got a ride from. Could only be the preacher – black cloth, a hole in the middle of the day. I watched him get smaller nearin’ the house, the black of his robe furred with dust. I wiped my brow and bent back to the cotton. Didn’t see him leave. Next time I looked to the house, Momma was a-hollerin’, leanin’ out the back door and wavin’ a pair of long johns up and down. Red on blue sky, red as a scratch on my leg, bloody enough to catch my eye. Suppertime. I walked up to the house, saw Pa go inside and Clift pass him. ‘Y’all wipe your feet,’ Momma called, flies a-buzzin’ in and out her mouth. The closing back door made a rainbow of dirt on the floor. Everyone sat down. “ p.16
I love the line “the closing back door made a rainbow of dirt on the floor”. It speaks not only of the house in which the character lives with its dirt floor but, also, the poetic way that the young character sees the world.
In this work, we trace her; life in her socially conservative town/family, her sexual awakening and, the consequences of that sexual awakening. The story is heartbreakingly beautiful. It had me sniffing into a hankie at times
Like the earlier story, “Conceptually” is told from the point of view of a young girl. However, unlike the protagonist of the early story who lives in a conservative family, the main character of this story lives in an eccentric family of conceptual artists. Here she describes her family
“We lived as conceptual artists. It’s what we were. If anyone wanted to know who we were, they had only to look. On special occasions, my family cut their clothes from paintings. Mum wore Botticelli. My sister wore Ophelia’s drowning dress, and Dad was the king some woman in a medieval painting swept around. I wore a smock from a haystack” p8
The story, heartbreakingly, speaks of; society’s cruel and officious reaction to this family, of the bullying from other children, and the officious meddling if the authorities. The narrator speaks of the effects that these outside agencies have on the family. The ending is once again heartrending.
The third tale, which I shall explore, is, once again, told from the perspective of a young child speaking of her parents. At the beginning of the tale, she speaks of her mother in the following manner;
“My mother was like a Custard Cream, nothing special, an ordinary sort of nice enough. She was just there, like gravity. There was no need to think about her. She was Mam- shaped, bits of her flattened under a white overall with pearly buttons.”
Isn’t that, sadly, how many of us see our mothers. But, she then goes onto state how her mom changed.
“Then, one summer, she became Elvis. She was yawning, frying chips, and worried if there’d be enough hot water for a bath when she got in, then BAM! She was Elvis, hips a-gogo, rocking onto the balls of her feet with only the counter between her and lasses screaming and promising to love her forever. Maybe she just thought, ‘Sod it. I’d make as good an Elvis as anyone.’ Who doesn’t want to be Elvis now and then? The funny thing is” ibid
This is the story of a woman who takes on a celebrity identity to, temporarily, break out of the roles that have been ascribed to her. She challenges; her role as a mother, her role as a mundane worker, her gender identity, and her sexuality. These challenges allow both; the writer, and the reader to play with these concepts. In fact, the stories I selected for review, and many others in this collection, deal with; ascribed roles and the consequences when we break, or do not conform to those identities.
The experimental nature of some of these stories heightens our exploration of both the world and character. For example, the use of dialect in ‘before song’ heightens the atmosphere of the story and enhances our understanding of both the main character and her world. I really loved this collection. It takes snapshots of life and makes us examine them in more detail