Angela Readman: Don't Try This at Home
2015, And Other Stories, London – New York
£10 / $15.95 (print), £5 / $8 (ebook)
Fiction Review by Eniko Jakab
Published in The Ofi Press issue 42
Angela Readman's collection, Don't Try This at Home is a slim volume of 12 short stories – quirky, dark, and utterly captivating tales, which never cease to surprise their reader, as Readman combines the everyday and the fantastic, the sad and the funny with astonishing ease.
The first short story, Don't Try This at Home sets the subversive, tongue-in-the cheek tone with the very first sentences: 'I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted. I said we could double our time together. He said he could be twice as productive'. When describing how the main character cuts her boyfriend in two with the help of a spade – a scene just too rich in everyday details to be interpreted as simply metaphorical -, Readman juxtaposes the fantastic and the practical in an irresistible, delightful way: 'I suppose we could have used the kitchen floor, but I didn't want to scratch the tiles.' As the female protagonist goes on multiplying her husband, with new and unexpected personality traits and story lines appearing, the text playfully investigates the finality of our choices: 'Sometimes, other parts of Daniel come home (…) Sometimes I miss him. I see him look out of the window, wondering where part of him went.'
Readman blurs the lines of reality with a sure hand, and her masterfully crafted stories draw in the reader in such a seamless way that disbelief is suspended more than willingly, as in When We Were Witches or Dog Years. The former short story, set in a half fairy-tale, half-medieval background, portrays a little girl left by her mother in the care of the village witch. Readman explores subjects such as parent-child relationship, abandonment, the longing for home, security, and attachment. In Dog Years, we get glimpses into the life of the dog-faced girl, also abandoned by her mother, then later exploited as a spectacle in a circus. Readman depicts the vulnerability of her protagonist with genuine empathy, and her sentences make the heart heavy with ache: 'I squeeze the doll (…) – a little stuffed dog wearing a peach dress. It's like me, has a smile stitched to its fur'.
In some other short stories, the presence of the fantastic has more ambiguity to it, or its meaning evolves as the story progresses. In The Keeper of Jackalopes, the father and his six-year old daughter, Clary (in many ways more mature than her taxidermist father) live in a trailer park, the existence of which is threatened by plans of creating a department store. Cale and Clary protest against the sale of the land by claiming that the area is home to jackalopes: mythical creatures, jackrabbits with antelope horns. Do jackalopes really exist in the reality the story creates? Or are they symbols for things lost – the trailer park, childhood, innocence, the hope that Clary's mother returns one day? Similarly, in Boys Like Toys, it is up to the reader to decide whether the toy soldier really speaks, or whether it is a way of coping for the child protagonist, Nathan, to escape anxiety, the unbearable reality that his father is away, and to act out his fears. In Everywhere You Don't Want to Be, the young, unhappy protagonist wonders if the old homeless woman she frequently bumps into could be her future self, and, by magical thinking, tries to escape her fate. Likewise, magical thinking seems to be the last resort of the narrator of Shine On, a young girl desperately hoping that she will not be forced to give up her child for adoption.
Alienation, emotional neglect, the impossibility to connect, the loneliness of children within the family, the failed relationship between parent and child are central in the short stories Conceptual, Surviving Sainthood, or Birds Without Wings.
A few stories have lighter, funnier tones. In There's a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop, the narrator's mother is transformed into Elvis when she suddenly falls in love with one of her customers, a young girl, but the joyous embracing of life is soon shattered by the pressure to conform to society's expectations. In Catwoman Had Something, the narrator's aunt (the aunt who was 'almost Catwoman') passes down her niece the inheritance of being recognized, of standing out, and the young girl – after some initial hesitation – finally accepts this gift, saying: 'I couldn't imagine walking through life knowing no one was watching me walk away'.
The fascinating narrative technique – with narrators seemingly hesitant to reveal information vital to the stories – keeps the reader absorbed throughout. The unpretentious, yet poetic texts resonate in one's mind long after finishing the book, creating the urge to get lost again in this irresistible blend of the down-to-earth and the magical.
The design of the book is simply beautiful, featuring the mythical jackalopes on the cover – it is a feast for the eyes indeed.