Today, Lancashire Writing Hub guest editor Sarah Schofield reviews Carys Bray’s Salt Scott Prize winning short story collection Sweet Home.
I don’t have children. I’d describe myself as a hesitant mother. I picture myself stumbling from one epic parental failure to the next, completely at odds with the motherly ideals we are sold in adverts, films and magazines; beautiful children, perfect families… They make me break out in cold sweats. I’d accidentally call ‘Baby Bounce and Rhyme’ ‘Baby Bump and Grind’, and probably leave my child on the bus. The thought of having children terrifies me. But Carys Bray’s short story collection, Sweet Home (published by Salt) may have done something to change my mind. It is the most human, beautifully-brutally frank and moving collection of short stories I have read in a very long time. Centred around family relationships, it is the antidote to all that is cheesily portrayed as family life.
The first story ‘Everything a Mother Needs to Know’ establishes the rhythm of the collection within the first line; “Helen’s daughter hates her.” Helen is divorced and desperately seeking guidance in trite parenting books (quotes created by Bray but scarily familiar to anyone who’s ever flicked through one.) The story opens at the pool, and a battle of wills between mother and daughter. Acutely observed and well paced, the narrative has symmetry so lightly handled, that it unfurls like a revelation. The mother and daughter are at odds. Yet the daughter, anxious and struggling because she feels she has “forgotten how” to swim mirrors the mother precisely, drowning in parental guilt.
Bray knows how to hook her reader. The second story in the collection, ‘Just in Case’ begins, “I’ve been looking for a baby to borrow for a number of weeks.” This is the story of a woman grieving the loss of a baby. The forensic detail she notices, both literally; ‘decomposition of the human body is a cascade process. There are four stages: fresh, bloat, decay and dry”, and her forensic detailing of the leather bags she sells, with little distinction between the two, gives the story an uncannily unsettling focus throughout.
The collection is titled after the third story in the book. This decision is well measured. ‘Sweet Home’ is an updated twist on Hansel and Gretel. Playing on the original narrative, it highlights discrimination, racism and small community gossip. Refering to the foreign woman’s gingerbread home, one zenophobic character states: “She should have used an English recipe… Victoria sponge… You can’t get more English than that.” It seems more than appropriate that the Hansel and Gretel narrative, so ingrained in family life and read to generations of children, should have a re-evaluation and hold an important place in this collection. Challenging established expectations of what ‘family’ looks like.
Subverting this norm is what makes ‘The Baby Aisle’ one of my favourite stories in the collection. A woman doing her weekly supermarket shop is drawn to the baby aisle where children are commodities; lifestyle choices that can be purchased alongside your groceries. “The lamb-like wails of discontented infants washed into her ears on a wave of nostalgia. The sound seemed to interfere with the transmission of memory, allowing only the selected Hallmark highlights of motherhood to play in her mind.” This story has lots to say about class, the portrayal and realities of parenthood and even consumer society. It is playfully, darkly melancholic; what if you could return children like damaged goods?
Bray has a voice that is unmistakeable. She creates seamless character introspection, as in ‘Everything a Parent needs to know’, where Helen reflects on her daughter; “Her drawings usually feature herself and Helen… Helen’s face is often scribbled over. This is because it is usually raining or snowing in Jessica’s pictures. It is nothing personal. Children don’t really hate their parents.” These moments of desperate self-soothing sprout throughout the collection, saying one thing loudly to self while silently dreading the converse.
Loss features large in these stories. Both physically, in ‘Scaling Never’ as a young boy tries to fathom the death of his sister whilst navigating the family’s complex religious beliefs, and emotionally in ‘The Rescue’ as a father’s attempts to reconnect with his drug abusing son are brought into relief by the Chilean miners’ rescue. In ‘Under Covers’ the layers of loss, of body, femininity, partner and innocence are revealed like gut punches that catch you off guard, through a double lens perspective of older woman and teenage girl.
Another important theme is the disparity between perception and reality. In ‘Dancing in the Kitchen’ a mother serves up a series of director’s cuts; assiettes created to please her son. And in ‘Wooden Mum’, a mother desperate to dispel a sibling argument, and at the end of her tether, puts a Nat King Cole CD on to sing to. “If people could see us right now, they would be certain of our happiness.”
Bray also has an uncanny ability for capturing children on the page. Nothing is saccharine. Sentiment is negated beautifully by the everyday; resurrected bird bones are sucked up by the vacuum, children role play funeral services bearing the dead to strains of ‘Alice the Camel’.
I think the hardest hitting stories are those which fold back on time, where characters hold the blueprint they’ve drawn for their children’s lives over the one they experienced themselves. In ‘Love: Terms and Conditions,’ a woman’s visit to her parents with her children highlights the disparity between their free upbringing and her own restricted one. There is urgency to not do it how your parents did. And yet a tendency for history to loop echoed in ‘I will never disappoint my children’ as a mother remembers a visit to an ice cream parlour. “You slotted a picture of the scene into the projector of your memory. When I grow up, I will never disappoint my children like this, you thought.”
There are moments when you long for a breather. The stories are incredibly rich with feelings that cut to the heart. There is little let up. Few stories let you off the hook for a moment. A bit like parenthood, perhaps? But one could also argue that a short story collection is not designed for guzzling in one helping. Although with opening lines like “We’re just pulling the curtains around so as not to frighten the other parents.” (‘Bed Rest’) and “He kills the baby by accident.” (‘The Countdown’) it’s hard to put the book down and get some air.
Sweet Home starts and ends with a mother on her knees. The final story, ‘On the way Home’ draws together all of humanity by handing on the point-of-view baton from one character to the next.
The stories in Sweet Home work like beads on a thread, each reflecting on those around it, but each with its own distinct texture and lustre. Nothing is sugar coated. It is honest and unguarded – so far from what mummycentric websites and smug washing powder adverts would have you believe, I feel safe and reassured by all that stark reality. Sweet Home is alive, beautiful and painfully true.
Sweet Home is launching on 9th November at Broadhursts bookshop, Southport . More details here.
Carys Bray’s prize-winning short stories have been published in a variety of magazines and literary journals including Mslexia, Dialogue, P
Sarah Schofield is a freelance writer. Her stories have been published in magazines such as Woman’s Weekly and anthologies including Bio-Punk, Lemistry (both CommaPress), Spilling Ink and Back and Beyond Arts Publication. She lives in Lancashire with her one eyed cat.