The South Westerlies by Jane Fraser

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Fraser’s debut, ‘The South Westerlies’, a collection of 18 short stories set mostly in and around Gower, South Wales, is rife and woven with careful detail and design. I could ramble and try to find a multitude of words to describe it, but ultimately, the collection is a joy to read for all those who deeply love intricate prose. A writer who understands their setting so well – as Fraser does of Gower – each story is acute in its texture.

The collection evokes a wide scope of emotion and situation, both the everyday and the slightly obscure – yet they equally reflect life in all its confusing, joyful, melancholic [and on and on] glory. Each piece is a reflection of the self – whether it be told directly or indirectly to us, and each character is believable too. Though perhaps believable isn’t quite the term – Fraser’s characters are more authentic than anything. I could resonate with each piece, some more strongly than others – a gift many writers strive to possess. The decision to make Gower the collection’s home extends this. It connects the pieces not only in theme but in landscape – a shared space in South Wales, where lives are connected throughout the soil and on the breeze. It carries throughout.

The pacing is pretty spot on. To those apprehensive that eighteen stories set in the same place could become somewhat tiresome – another five pages of life, followed by another, then another, Fraser breaks the mould between off-kilter and mundane, between a fully fleshed moment to a quick vignette spanning a night, if that.

A Passing Front’ is a stand out tale, as is ‘Just in Case’. More than just surface value, each take elements of the supernatural and the ever so slightly leaning weird and spin strong stories out of each. The former sees a man collecting dead wasps after his wife has left him, carefully gluing their decaying bodies back together. Here Fraser deals in metaphor – the wife returns only to leave later once again, the husband realising too that no matter how much he tries he cannot put the wasps back together – “the heap of death that littered the space in front of me without being able to do anything without it.” It sounds heavy handed, but Fraser weaves it with care.

Just in Case’ dips into folklore. Here a woman is haunted by a white owl and Welsh tales her mother has told. Here too, the prose excels – “the next day breaks bright, laced with frost and I dust off the debris of a disturbed night and the gloom that cloaked me the previous evening.” In fact, it does so throughout. Many of Fraser’s stories suspend you in moments and reel you in. Her dedication to beautiful writing is more than welcome. And when she takes us into the everyday drop of Gower life – a farmer on the lookout for a wife, a funeral of a father, surfers and fisherman and a girl who comes back home from university to see all that she’s left behind, the prose elevates each piece to more than just observation. There’s darkness and light throughout – a sense that Gower seeps into everything.

Two of the strongest stories are saved till last – ‘Everything Around Here Is Turning to Rust’ and the title piece ‘The South Westerlies’. It’s a fitting end to the collection.

Everything Around Here Is Turning to Rust’ is an accumulation of the many themes Fraser explores. It feels as though she’s plucked characters and situations from the previous pieces and melted them together. Farm work makes a return, as does the ever-present caricature of the housewife, except none of it falls into cliché. Rosie, a mid-20s woman married to a violent man and who she lives with in a caravan with their boys, is as downtrodden and abused as perhaps you’d expect her to be –

She often wonders if there’s any way out. But you can’t split a farmer from his land. Shut up and put up, is his way of saying it. Sometimes, especially with the drink in him, he’s more adamant.

Again, the detail of the prose is delicious. “A hybrid of mother Elise and serving wench. She wonders when she turned into this creature she loathes.” – “She carries on looking at the yearling that doesn’t want to be broken by the man planted in the centre of the shed, whose eyes she knows will be pit-black with rage, determined it will be he who will be master.” Fraser captures each and every scene with blinding accuracy.

The title piece is quite rightly kept for the close. It sees Fraser weave back into the off-kilter, presenting us with ghosts – both real and imagined, and an ending that sees the remnants of a former life go up in literal flames. It’s a powerful story, told, as are the majority of the collection, with a secure sense of style and lyrical prose.

The South Westerlies’ a confident, assured debut from Fraser – a writer who knows her subject and knows how to write it true and well.

The South Westerlies is published by Salt and is available here.

Jane Fraser

Jane Fraser is an award-winning writer of short story, historical fiction, memoir and haibun.

She lives and works in Llangennith, a small village at the north-western edge of the Gower peninsula, south Wales, in a house facing the sea which bears the full brunt of the south-westerly wind.

Her writing is infused with the tone of this prevailing wind, so much so, that as an homage, she has titled her first collection of short stories, The South Westerlies.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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