I want to find her and ask her to show me what other creatures I could be.
Fabulism isn’t a literary mode that I have a particularly easy time with. The discomfort that I often feel when reading something with an overtly “magical realist” tinge is, I’ve discovered, the same as the discomfort I get from “contemporary” translations of texts from classical antiquity. It’s a form of register clash. Reading a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues that includes the phrase “Put up or shut up” (as I once did) is jarring, a yank out of the clearly established classical context into a slangy modernity that feels false. In the same way, reading a story obviously set in a world like our own becomes bewildering when elements of fantasy creep in: witches, spells, sculptures that come to life, but also Paddington station, a bar called the Red Oak, Paris’s Sacré Cœur glimpsed from an apartment window. More often than not, when stories like this work, it’s because the author has planed her prose smooth, every word chosen to encourage and nourish the reader’s belief.
Stephanie Victoire’s stories manage this about half the time, and half is a pretty good ratio for a young author (she graduated from London Met in 2010) whose first collection this is. The first story, “Time and Silence”, and the third, “Layla and the Axe”, work very well because they remain basically unmoored from an easily identifiable contemporary world. “Time and Silence” is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who is abused, Cinderella-fashion, by a mother who believes in the fundamental badness of males. A mysterious girl with no name appears outside their forest-bound shack. His friendship with her gives him the strength to defy his mother and leave his situation of domestic slavery, but the world into which he escapes is, in many ways, no safer:
As for me, there’d be new lands and the sea, and that thought got me excited. I only looked back once to see the small glow of light from the house disappear behind the arms of the trees. Snow tugged my arm, urging me on. There was no way I could let go of her now. I looked up one more time at the moon before moving quicker, because it was then I was sure I heard the howling of a wolf.
I have always liked ambiguity in short stories, especially in their endings. “Layla and the Axe” also derives its strength from the ambiguity of its ending, indeed of its whole plot: a young girl moves through a similar forest, her faithful fox by her side, carrying an axe. She is on her way to wreak vengeance on a mysterious man who has emerged repeatedly from the trees to seduce, or rape, girls from the village. She finds a house at the story’s end:
“Come in! Come in!” says the voice again and, at the turning of the handle and the creak of the door, Layla pushes through the aches in her arms, ready to swing, and thinks Pa’s axe could be a hero.
There the story ends; we never find out whether she brings the axe down in time, whether the person she kills is the person she is looking for. There is just enough uncertainty about the mysterious man’s provenance to make the reader wonder: is it possible that Layla doesn’t, can’t, succeed?
The stories I found less convincing were “The Animal Ball” and “Dark Arts and Deities”, the penultimate story in the collection. “The Animal Ball” is a brilliant idea wrapped in an execution that feels too hurried. A wealthy couple, the Barringtons, invite everyone they know to an animal-themed costume ball. Over the course of the evening, there is a murder, and the Barrington marriage—thanks in no small part to the presence of a fortune-telling guest dressed as a snow owl—begins to disintegrate under the weight of lies, jealousy, and revenge. My problem with it is that the writing just feels undercooked. The story asks the reader to do quite a lot of emotional work as it progresses, but there’s no sense of the words being arranged artfully in order to help the reader do that. It’s probably easier to illustrate this by quoting:
The swan went over to the snow owl to explain that she’d have her payment the next day as she didn’t have any more cash on her.
“Oh no, all that has been sorted with your husband,” the snow owl replied, stroking the feathers of her cloak.
“What do you mean?” The swan gulped down the lump in her throat, discreetly she thought, but the snow owl saw it.
“I think you ought to talk to him about it.”
I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all.
A similar set of problems plagues “Dark Arts and Deities”, which focuses on a twenty-something wild child summoning a pantheon of historically and culturally diverse gods to wreak revenge on the small town whose provincial inhabitants have snubbed her. Why would any of these divine powers give the slightest damn about a vaguely sexy woman being misunderstood? What about our protagonist is compelling enough to make us believe that she is herself a candidate for apotheosis? The sex scenes are just embarrassing, the info-dumping is excessive, the clichés reach new heights (“the usual suspects”; “sobbing her eyes out”; “all of her emotional cuts were closing up”). The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.
The collection’s triumph, though—and it does have one—is the presence of two stories which deal with gay and transgender themes. “Shanty”, the inner monologue of a biological male who knows he is a girl, invokes the archetype of the mermaid:
I wish I’d been created so. Imagine being that magnificent, that magnetic and that ethereal… Just a tail that allows you to soar and pirouette, like a ribbon being twirled in the air…in pure, blissful freedom.
Freedom is the key. In the final story, “Morgana’s Shadow”, a young girl from a deeply religious family is imprisoned after she’s seen kissing a woman in the forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, the deal being that in exchange for the kiss she acquires the power of shape-shifting. It’s one of the shorter stories, but in it, Victoire seamlessly literalises the feeling of not being oneself, or of not being the self that others believe one is or should be, that often haunts people struggling with their sexuality. Her interest in liberation—physical, mental, emotional—is rooted in a belief in the power of transforming magic. But it is very easy to see how literal magic can stand in for the intoxicating feeling that comes from finally, finally being true to yourself:
I rip myself free from the rags and my large wing bats Joshua away from me. …I test out my new lungs and a loud cry sweeps across the room with my breath—the sound of freedom.
Many thanks to the publicity folks at Salt for sending me a review copy. The Other World, It Whispers was published in the UK on 15 November.