It is hard to say what makes a good short story collection, assessing the quality of one story is hard enough, let alone many. A short story collection can manage to delight and disappoint at the same time; it can push the boundaries and simultaneously stay safely within them. There are no rules on how to construct a short story collection. One may strive for coherence, a uniting of themes, of sentiment, imagery, then again one may not – the stories may flit between genre, time and space. Also, the length of a short story may stretch the notion of ‘short’ to its very literary limit, essentially constituting a baby novella, or, ‘short’ might seem a little far off the mark, being closer to poetry rather than prose.
So, with these difficulties in mind we turn to Stephanie Victoire’s collection The Other World it Whispers. Here we have nine stories bound together under a captivating title. Considering making judgement on such a collection I am reminded of those collections that have truly surprised me. Those that stand out have managed to convey something devastatingly affecting and/or memorable in a limited form. They achieve the task of divulging a notion that might be more fitting to the format of a novel within a modest word count, and without the reader feeling the absence of a closer context or detail. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann is one recent collection that combines tragedy with a loose concoction of plot lines that run through the stories, but it is made dazzlingly vivid with a beautiful articulation of ordinary details and unexpected turns of events. Specifically, oddly, the image of fish recurs through the stories and twinkles in front of your eyes long after you’ve finished reading. The everyday musings of Raymond Carver have also managed to command the attention of critics consistently since their formation; their direct confrontations of the nature of real American life still stand out as a more honest representation than many other great American novelists have managed. Some short story collections can be just as unforgettable as a novel.
Short stories are often indicative of the early career of a writer: it is a way to hone ones literary style and interests; it also offers space for experimentation where one might not trust such ideas would work in longer formats. Victoire’s collection is her first publication and it is a fine start. Her stories drift around the mystical and the profane. Magic as a subject of the short story has a long tradition and instantly situates these stories in a very specific context. Magic in short tales alludes to the fairy tale, to the myth, to the fable. Such stories often have a moralistic stand point as the tricks of sorcery enable a quite extravagant illustration of cause and effect. Magic can give a short story the dexterity it needs to convey everything it wants to quickly and Victoire’s stories flourish with the little bit of sorcery she employs.
Set, not strictly, but seemingly around the present day, most of the stories combine the ordinary concerns and obsessions of a number of characters with elements of the supernatural, either directly or through their imaginations. Victoire takes a number of prominent fairy-tale themes and plays with them. Loneliness and heartbreak are encountered many times. In Time and Silence a young boy is worked like Cinderella by his cruel mother and an encounter with a mysterious girl wondering in the snow changes the course of his life. The mist, snow, dark woods echo stories of the past, but the tale is still engaging in its nostalgic approach. Layla and the Axe references Little Red Riding Hood, except this time the sexual metaphors of the big bad wolf are translated into the big bad man in the woods, and Layla sets out on a rather explicit mission to butcher the sex offender hiding in the trees. Other stories are more contemporary: Shanty is a beautiful very short tale of a character trapped in the wrong gender finding solace in the stories of mermaids and sea creatures; they touchingly crave the ambiguity of a body without sexual organs that define its identity. In fact, this fabulous ‘queering’ of the fairy-tale recurs in The Bouquet Witch which one of the best stories in the collection. Another friendless soul is heartbroken by a young man who doesn’t return her attention in spite of his promises. She recalls a trapped young witch to avenge broken hearts everywhere and their relationship floats around friendship, to foe, to lovers in a beautifully scripted tale. Another favourite is The Earth-bound Express which turns the space after life into a train-ride of souls travelling to their next life. The banality of the train and its food trolley against the various generations of recently dead is a fun contrast.
The nine stories here are well-written. Victoire never loses the reader’s interest although some stories flow better than others. A couple of stories recur the plot of summoning the dead to avenge broken hearts that – as I have discussed above – works well for one story, but feels a little repeated later on. The tales are readable, but do not test the reader too much. They amount to a fine first collection, but do not break the mould of the short story too much. However, Victoire’s collection does have a sense of coherence about it. There is a prominent sense of place, of woods, snow and graveyards, and essentially, a type of modern, magical gothic. Loneliness is a feeling that comes across strongly in the book and many of the plot lines revolve around characters’ attempts to overcome this predicament; it lingers on from story to story and is something that the reader carries away with them. This recurrence of the most affecting of emotions make the collection more than a random selection of early experiments in fiction; it drives empathy in the reader and makes you feel that if you had the power you would do much of the same things as the characters do, for who wouldn’t want a little dose of magic available when suffering the aches of a broken heart?
Stephanie Victoire was born in London to a Mauritian family. In 2010 she graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from London Metropolitan University. In 2014 Stephanie completed her collection of fairy and folk tales entitled The Other World, It Whispers whilst on the The Almasi League writers’ programme. Two of these stories were separately published in 2015. Stephanie lives in London and is currently working on a novel, The Heart Note.
The Other World, It Whispers was published by Salt Publishing on 15th November 2016.
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Review by Jessica Gregory
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