Above the Fat by Thomas Chadwick

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Transforming the mundane into something intriguing, ‘Above the Fat’ is a wonderfully weird collection of short stories which slowly pulls readers in with obscure plots and layered characters. Chadwick has a skill for spotting the strange in something that could be so ordinary, presenting us with odd tales where the characters rarely have a traditionally ‘happy’ ending. Instead, the dryness adds a sense of irony to many of the stories, and gives an illusion to something deeper lurking beneath the surface.

The stories in this collection really inspired me, and in many ways, they surprised me too. Chadwick begins most of his tales with something ordinary and something largely uneventful, yet manages to weave magic into the sentences and moves the story along a path of twists and turns. And while not much really ‘happens’ in these stories, so much is packed into the pages that, by the end, we’ve been taken on an intriguing journey and are left with a substantial tale to sink our teeth into. The characters – while dry – develop into strong personalities, adding a sense of dark comedy to many of the pieces.

It’s really interesting to witness Chadwick’s mind at work in these stories, and the tactics he uses to build each story is something that, as both a reader and a writer, I appreciate and admire. The surprises that his stories offer are slight yet impactful, and the reader is left wondering how their own ‘ordinary’ story could become something much more meaningful. With short stories, it can often be difficult to get the balance of pacing just right. However with Chadwick’s stories, the slow movement of the pieces works to his advantage. Especially with the longer stories, it allows Chadwick the space and the time to layer his setting, his characters, and to include little quirks and details that we may have otherwise overlooked if the plotline had been more traditionally exciting or rushed.

Chadwick also includes topical references in his stories, and these small additions ground the stories and also aid the overall themes of the pieces – dissatisfaction and yearning. We hear about environmental and political events, much of them still relevant to a present-day audience. Many of Chadwick’s characters highlight the struggles of just existing in modern times, moving through these events and discovering how they place themselves in various environments; the feeling of change is constant throughout the pieces. There’s a sense of inner soul-searching from our characters – common in literature, but Chadwick puts a unique spin on it. We don’t necessarily feel hopeful for the characters, nor are we pleased for the outcome if indeed we get any. In fact, the stories often end abruptly – we’re left without resolution or any sense of ‘closure’. Yet we know that our characters carry on existing, muddling through troubled times and their general ambivalence towards life.

In a collection as strong as this one, it was hard to pick favourites, but there were some standouts which were particularly enjoyable reads. ‘Birch’, the first long story in the collection, admittedly started off weak for me. I wondered where the story was going, and while I liked the simple way the story developed, I was interested as to what exactly was going to happen. However, this is what enticed me. The relationship between him and Emma is sinister yet comical, and we get an even deeper sense of Stuart’s untapped personality. The story is funny and meaningful, yet in a subtle and curious way. I enjoyed the sense of despair and failure; despite the towering trees left at the end of the tale, the story had everything but an impactful ending. Instead, it drifted away like paper, which fit the tone of the piece perfectly.

On the other hand, ‘Purchase’ is a weird and funny story from the start, and appealed to me from the very beginning. I loved the conversation between Katie and the narrator, over something as mundane as purchasing trousers and buying fish. There’s a strong sense of nostalgia in this story, which comments on the pains of aging and dealing with a modern society. Choosing to display Katie mostly through her obscure and somewhat distant messages is a good move from Chadwick, as we get a strong sense of her personality yet we know that there is a deeper unhappiness at play. The embracing of things like gifs and emoji’s is refreshing and actually conveys a lot more here than standard written texts would. It’s a timely, dark and funny piece that has many layers to unpack in just a few pages.

‘Above the Fat’ is a great collection and another triumph for Splice’s weird and wonderful catalogue. I loved the experimentation, the humour, the simplicity, and the exploration into the everyday that ended within something deeper and sinister. It was exciting to work my way through these stories, and Chadwick’s skill at elevating typically ‘boring’ encounters made a for an enjoyable and surprising reading experience.

Above the Fat is published by Splice and is available here.

Thomas Chadwick

Thomas Chadwick grew up in Wiltshire and now splits his time between London and Ghent. His stories have been shortlisted for the White Review Prize and the Galley Beggar Prize, as well as the Ambit Prize and the Bridport Prize. He is an editor of Hotel magazine.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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