Monday, February 09, 2015

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

I'm so very happy to be on Salt's short story list: the company is amazing, and not least among them is Carys Davies, whose collection The Redemption of Galen Pike was published in the autumn. So many of the stories in this book have won prizes or have been short- or long-listed in prestigious competitions, it's quite dazzling: the V S Pritchett Prize, the Olive Cook Award, the EFG Sunday Times Award, and so on.

But to get to the stories, which I had to stop myself reading all in one sitting, so vivid and curious are the worlds they create, and so concise and witty the prose. But they are stories to savour. Each one creates a whole different and strange yet somehow familiar world where human emotions are stripped to their essentials - a jail in Colorado where a Quaker spinster visits a condemned man, the snowy waste of Siberia where a strange and threatening-seeming man turns up at an inn, a cabin in the woods of Eastern Europe where a woman lives in hiding, the Australian outback where a woman harbours a dark secret. These worlds are timeless and mythic: it's hard know in precisely which past century of Quaker Colorado the title story takes place, but it doesn't matter, and it's better that we don't; it's hard to remember, before the end of 'The Travellers' reminds us, that our Siberian innkeeper is an escapee from contemporary urban life, and it's a surprise - and entrancing - to find that the narrator of the fairytale-like 'Precious' has a modern wheelie suitcase. The effect is to make the stories, and the heartbreaking vulnerabilities and touching strengths of the characters, resonantly universal, and the marriage of this mythic quality with a sharp yet down-to-earth prose style makes for something very potent. In at least two of the stories, Davies reverses the myth-making process by telling us a story which turns out to be the 'truth' behind a familiar myth, and the effect is quite startling: the myth defamiliarised and made new to us all over again. There's an impressive restraint characterising the whole collection: in many of the stories a deep secret powers the actions of the central character, a secret not revealed until the end, and it is the wit and restraint with which Davies handles this that make so many of the stories in this impressive volume heartbreaking.

I thoroughly recommend this book: it's an absolute treat to read, and I guarantee that the stories will stay with you long afterwards.

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