BOOK REVIEW: Mayhem & Death by Helen McClory

The quality of the writing here announces itself from the start:

Frances had waited…for the static to disperse from her daughter’s personality; the obscuring details of herself that got between her and other people and then, shortly after, a storm cloud poured into the shape of a girl.

These are the kind of short stories closer to poetry than novels, and in this mix of short and very short story there is something of the best work of Stuart Dybek. In the countryside settings you might also be reminded of the non-fiction of Kathleen Jamie, or even the short stories of Barry Lopez, such is the attention to detail and language.

There is also a variety of approaches to the form here: narratives, questions, repetition, crime, bullet points, Jeff Goldblum, and in some stories, there are echoes of folk tales, as in Jeanette Winterson or Angela Carter.

The Beautiful Birds of the Aftermath’ is an environmental story, and was a favourite, so much contained in three pages. In ‘Means’ there’s a bit of Cormac McCarthy, and all told there’s much more death than mayhem.

But anyone who writes so beautifully about death has an intrinsic love of life.

Language, rather than characterisation, is the strength and focus of these stories, and there’s a pleasing absence of dialogue. That’s fine with me. A writer should go with their strengths rather than joining the formulaic melange. Though it is easy to conceal yourself as a writer behind a myriad of language rich-syntax, should you seek to do so, and I would have liked to get more of a sense of the author behind the words.

This is not one of those awful books where a poet of high profile bangs out some prose. Here is prose immersed in poetry. Think Nabokov.

One story that started every sentence with A charm.. was too much to take and I skipped it, but ‘The Comparison’ was a splendid story and reminded me of Gretel Ehrlich’s book about ice. The story of a lone hiker being pursued by a polar bear, it has an element of suspense to it, and was a welcome variation. The appearance of the roses also gave it metaphorical resonance. In the following story ‘Overwinternight’ the protagonist is in a bothy rather than a tent, and the narration is in the irritating second person. Yet the story succeeds despite that and is not as predictable as might be expected.

A highly promising writer developing a voice all her own.

Mayhem & Death is published by 404 Ink and is available to purchase here.

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Helen McClory

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Helen McClory lives in Edinburgh and grew up between there and the Isle of Skye. Her first collection, On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, was published by Freight in Spring 2017. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.

Reviewed by Neil Campbell

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