BOOK REVIEW: Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler

Short story collections, are, when done right, a thing of beauty. A piece of fiction to behold, where you can end one moment on the uncanny, the rich and the dark, and the next moment on heartache and acute sensitivity. Each thrusting you into the relative unknown. That is the utter joy of short story collections, and that is the utter joy of reading Dazzling the Gods too. Ambiguity and diversity. Where tone shifts from one page to the next, one story to another, and no two characters are ever the same.

It would be easy to rehash the same piece. Tell one tale, and then tell it again, in a different location. In a different mode. And there are times where writers fall into such traps, but here, they are deftly avoided.

I had no expectations reading Vowler as I (admittedly) had never read his work before. In fact, it was only thanks to my local library that I even picked a copy up. But from the first piece I read, I knew I was on to a winner. Absorbing from the get go. Yet the beginning of Dazzling the Gods, away from the page, is quite absorbing too.

The collection is the child of a crowd-funding project from Unbound, a publishing house that fosters creativity and allows writers and readers to come together to get an idea off the ground. The writer pitches the idea, and readers decide whether they support it, or not. The community style a welcome movement in an industry that can feel far removed from the everyday. A simple notion too, that feels fresh, despite being an old trick (Samuel Johnson did a similar thing with his dictionary in the mid-1700s). And just like the amalgamation of readers that pledged support to Vowler and Dazzling the Gods, and who he thanks at the back of his book, the thirteen stories we find within the pages are a fusion of a similar kind. All sorts of people in all sorts of places, but each joined by Vowler’s deliciously meticulous prose.

His style is neat. Precise. As though he’s fleshed out each narrative, and then taken a scalpel to the sentences, making each one count, each worth reading. I found myself, at times, re-reading certain paragraphs, just to take the prose in again. The detail and the imagery. There’s a skill in being measured. In capping yourself off in your writing. Knowing when to give and when to keep it concise. Vowler mastering the art. It comes as no surprise (although only after I researched, I admit, again). A Scott Prize and Edge Hill Prize winner, Dazzling the Gods his second short story collection. And despite the brevity of each short piece, no more than twenty pages at best, there is no need to rush. His concision is not there to make light work of the collection. Rather than a quick read, over short sentences, you savour every part.

This is no truer than with Banging Che Guevara and Fireflies, two widely different tales but tales too, that are linked by the set-up. The use of language. One warm (Fireflies detailing a walk between father and son), one comedic (Banging Che Guevara dealing with infidelity in pithy hilarity). Both clearly Vowler.

He has the knack too, for placing you into a story that feels familiar, believable, but never mundane. Debt a prime example. Two brothers back together, one returning to his former life, to help his mother, who is in deep with a debt collector. Worn territory, but Vowler elevates the narrative. The ‘debt’ not only his mother’s, a literal predicament, but the brothers too. A glimpse into the past, why they parted, and why it won’t ever be the same again.

Yet where Vowler gives us heart, he also deals in the uncanny. The off-kilter. Where nothing is quite as it seems. You want a collection to showcase a spectrum of ideas, and At the Musee d’Orsay is Vowler diving straight in. Darkly humorous, with a squirm of an ending, metaphorical as it is sickly, he can deliver a ‘message’, work in a theme, that is always two-fold. There’s the story, and then the story. Work that is more than just surface level.

In a recent interview Vowler, perhaps accidentally, sums up his own self. Responding to a question surrounding sentence style, he notes, “language must be a living, vital thing, one that comes off the page, that arrests and kicks and bites, that startles and consoles”. I have no choice but to agree, and thankfully, and willingly, no choice but to say that Vowler does exactly that. A rich collection, not to be rushed, but to be savoured, that is an elegant display of short story writing.

Dazzling the Gods is published by Unbound and is available here.

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Reviewed by Emily Harrison

Tom Vowler

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Tom Vowler‘s first collection, The Method, won the inaugural Scott Prize in 2010, and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011. He followed this with two novels – What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day – and his work has been published in journals around the world. Tom is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction, and lectures in Creative Writing at Plymouth University, where he has just completed his PhD. Apart from being an occasional all-rounder for the Authors Cricket XI, he has no hobbies.

 

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