Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 1

As promised I’m going to save time this month with an impromptu Advent Calendar recycling reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website and which are now archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

Here we go:-

SECOND CONTACT and other stories

Gary Couzens

Elastic Press pb, 282pp, £8

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Gary Couzens is a writer whose work has always avoided easy categorisation, eschewing the pigeonhole of genre, written from both a female and male perspective with variations in sexual orientation, intruding slices of non-fiction into stories that are otherwise pure invention, and all of these traits can be seen, as well as the lack of any one defining characteristic, in this first collection of his short fiction from Elastic Press.

Title story “Second Contact” is set against the backdrop of the total eclipse of 1999, with various people from different walks of life assembling in Cornwall to bear witness to this event and interacting, the extraordinary nature of what is happening a catalyst to personal revelation. Not so much story as a series of overlapping character studies, in much the same way that the moon occludes the face of the sun for a short period of time, and for the reader a fascinating glimpse into other lives. And then in “Second Contact Revisited” Couzens reveals the background to the story itself, how it came to be written, publishing history and the debate as to its status as Science Fiction, his own personal circumstances at the time of the eclipse, incidental details that are irrelevant to our appreciation of “Second Contact” as a story and yet add another and even more fascinating dimension to the experience of reading it. The opening story, “Subject Matter”, comes at the matter of creativity from a similarly oblique angle, constructed like a Russian doll and detailing the real people who inspire artists in different media, playing games with our perceptions of how creativity works, a tactic made even more intriguing by the possible inclusion of Couzens himself as a character and his meeting with a woman those in the know will recognise as the pseudonym he uses when writing for Romantic markets, arguably evidence that writers are shaped just as much by the raw material of their craft as they shape it.

Couzens’ prose style is always impeccable, with an eye for the exact detail that will bring his characters to compelling and convincing life, and this is perhaps seen to best advantage in the previously unpublished novella “A Giant among Women”, the longest piece here and in many ways the most intriguing. Graham, who wants to be a writer, becomes Portia’s lodger. Though a beautiful woman, at 6′ 5” Portia feels herself to be not only out of sync with the rest of the world because of her size but also that in some way she falls short of her own ideals, insecurities that she hides behind a world weary and borderline cynical veneer. A lover of the arts, she is thwarted by her own lack of creativity, and compensates by surrounding herself with talented people. Graham is the latest addition to her coterie, and as we see Portia and the circle of hangers on who orbit round about her through his eyes an engrossing study emerges of emotional vacuity and our own need to feel valued. It falls off slightly at the end for lack of an aesthetically pleasing resolution, but then so does life itself. The other novella in this collection, the superbly creepy “Eggshells”, has a similar sensibility, with deft characterisation and little touches of ambiguity that delight, although the plot is at first reading more conventional. Heavily pregnant Vicky receives a letter, ostensibly from her husband’s previous wife who committed suicide. At first she suspects stepdaughter Hannah of mischief making, but as the story unfolds and other events of a sinister timbre occur it becomes apparent that something else entirely is happening and Vicky is led to question both her own sanity and how much she really knows about the man she loves. The story’s prevailing mood of uncertainty is developed with panache, but to Couzens’ credit at the end he deftly sidesteps all the old clichés you might expect to arise from this scenario, instead offering us a final and powerful affirmation of both love and life itself.

It is when he doesn’t dodge the clichés that Couzens’ work is at its weakest. While the prose is every bit as elegant and measured as elsewhere “Miss Perfect”, in which a jealous wife unwittingly drives her husband into the arms of another woman, suffers from a plot that is so tired and trite even the soap opera scriptwriters hardly ever use it any more. Similarly, while Couzens tries hard to put a different spin on the subject matter, “Half-Life” is at bottom nothing more than a ghost story running along wholly familiar lines. “Eskimo Friends” is more intriguing, at least initially, presenting the scenario of a woman who gets drunk and is then date raped, only for the man who did this to commit suicide a day or so later. Couzens sets the scene with real authority, and the moral and emotional ramifications in the material could have made for a first rate story had they been properly explored, but instead he then tosses them away with some pseudo-supernatural hogwash about how there was something wild on the loose that night and everybody was acting badly. The stories that work best are those where the outré is used as a catalyst for events rather than as a get out of gaol free card, as in “The Day of the Outing”, another story with an idea that captures the reader’s imagination for its sheer audacity, with a picture of intervention on a cosmic scale. One day the world wakes up and finds that everyone knows who is gay; no more hiding or need to hide. For Simon, still not out of the closet, the implications are immense and we are allowed to share his experiences as he adapts to these new circumstances and the reactions of those around him. One may quibble with the idea that sexuality is quite so clear cut, but the subtext that there is nothing to fear except fear itself is the thought that lingers in the mind after reading.

“Drowning” opens with Maria at the bedside of her sister Beatrice, who has just attempted suicide, and as the story progresses with revelations about the sisters’ past and the favouritism shown Maria by their father the reader is drawn into a level of reality where everything, including happiness, is seen to be subjective. Childhood rivalry also features in “Amber”, with Toni returning as an adult to her old stomping grounds and in particular the woods where her eight year old cousin disappeared when they were playing all those years ago, and she has to confront her guilt about the incident and make peace with the past. The past similarly comes back to haunt the narrator of “Straw Defences”, a critically acclaimed writer who is shown how much of his success was grounded in hatred for the bully who made his schooldays a misery, though with this realisation comes an emotional nullity that short circuits his ability to create. In each of these finely drawn stories it is characterisation that drives the plot, with readers experiencing the pain and doubts of the people Couzens so effectively brings to life on the page.

Several of the stories have unusual narrative structures, such as the wonderfully evocative “Thunderhead”, in which a woman’s passion is juxtaposed with the fury of nature itself, the two elements interacting and seeming to feed off of each other, Couzens’ prose pyrotechnics making the story one of the most memorable in the collection. Similarly “This Flight Tonight”, co written with the indefatigable Des Lewis, plays games at the expense of the reader’s perceptions with shifting views of reality that inform and reinforce each other, the possible death of a man aboard an aeroplane the lynchpin of a series of interlocking stories, the whole neatly capped with an ending that compounds the ambiguity. “Migraine”, a fascinating exploration of gender and identity, offers us two different realities which intersect and overlap. In one world Penny is a woman who suffers from violent migraines and in another she is Peter, a man who feels that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body. Couzens treats this difficult material with genuine sensitivity and insight, and his depiction of a transsexual’s crisis of identity is the most convincing I have ever read. What comes over clearly is the compassion and understanding he has of the characters, even, and perhaps especially, when they are acting badly. The story itself becomes predictable and loses focus slightly at the end, but the depth of feeling makes it a remarkable feat of empathy.

These stories and four others go to make up a collection that is a fitting celebration of the ability of one of the most original and gifted writers currently working in the UK Small Press, and kudos to Elastic Press ( http://www.elasticpress.com for purchase details) for giving that talent a chance to shine and hopefully reach the larger audience it deserves.

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