'He wondered how it had achieved its shape, how its edges had been rounded and its jaggedness tamed. Its greenish tinge crossed by veins resembled the vascular tissues of leaves or the void filling the lattices used by Barbara Hepworth. This mineral had a story, one which fitted his palm'
'The Sepentine', 17%.
Rusticles by Rebecca Gransden.
Cardboard Wall Empire, 2017.
Emma Donoghue said that “the great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side" (original source unknown). That is precisely what we see in Rusticles, subtle glances and memorable snapshots of human lives. What you find here is something hauntingly beautiful and refreshingly different from your classic short story, here Gransden lays out stories akin to Polaroid pictures, capturing the raw emotional moments of daily life.
There are eleven stories in total, each with their own disturbed characters and a dark edgy rawness that will keep you up until late at night. You will wonder how a story ended, because Gransden does not always provide the reader with a conclusion, which I thought was a very interesting and brave technique to use. She is denying the reader the satisfaction of an ending, she is not allowing them that gratification. However, I found this denial kept the stories in my head a lot longer than the conclusive stories I often read, it kept one part of my mind in Gransden's world, questioning and probing for answers we humans are often too hellbent on getting. A clear example is 'Black and Blue', a tale told from the recently unemployed and flat-hermit Joe. The sky suddenly goes black. No stars, no eclipses, no moon, it goes completely black. The reader - and the characters - never find out why it happens or why it isn't all over the television. The focus of the story is Joe's reaction, his observations of the world outside his window and the panicked phone calls he receives from friends. Another example is 'The Boy at the Table', where a ghost child appears at the protagonists kitchen table and Gransden never reveals to us the truth behind the ghost. This snapshot story focuses on the dialogue and emotions shared between the two characters.
Many of the characters are alone or isolated in some way. In 'The Neon Black', two siblings are bonded by a tragic event but also separated by it; in 'The Serpentine' a man wanders alone looking for his lost son; in 'Miles' a boy writes his last frenzied diary entry. Even in 'Downstairs' where two girls plan to expose the sordid happenings of a run-down amphitheatre, the girl Jan is alienated by the two eyes in her bedroom and her previous visit to the amphitheatre. The only story I would hold up as an exception to this theme is 'Breakneck Hill', where two souls are trapped in a limbo that repeats their deaths over and over.
Gransden's use of language is masterful and there are many lines I fell in love with, often short snappy observations that are so true to life that we often take them as 'part of the scenery' and don't notice them until they are pointed out to us. They are often haunting and jolted me out of my reading. Lines such as 'there was this slab of meat about the size of a baby' (Dried Peas on a Wall, 10%), 'it sticks its head out from the leaves, like a dog's lipstick, and blinks' (Dilapidated Flamingo, 26%), and:
'she felt inside her pockets and pulled out a packet of cola cubes. Settling by one of those pipes you always find in alleyways she began to wait'
- 'The Neon Black', 1%.
One of my favorite stories in this collection is 'Starlight Dumpers', though 'Dilapidated Flamingo' comes a very close second. Here two teenagers go to to a hill next to a factory. The boy is eager to discover sex and the girl wants to show him something. While she works on him, the boy watches as the factory comes to life and discovers there is life in metal. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I found this story very well crafted, short but alluding to bigger concepts. Quite a few of Gransden's stories do this: something fantastical or strange creeps into normal life, but we do not pursue the mystery as readers, we only get to experience it like the characters themselves: briefly, emotionally and ignorantly.
I highly recommend this collection. Gransden's imagination is mesmerizing and these stories will linger in your mind long after the final page. These surreal and dreamlike stories should be shared, read and loved. Gransden has also published a book called anemogram which I look forward to exploring some time soon.