Book review: salt slow, by Julia Armfield

Julia Armfield
Julia Armfield
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This is a truly dazzling collection of short stories. Freud used the word unheimlich, which is usually translated as “uncanny”, although if you break down the German word, “un-home-like” is a better fit. Over nine stories, Julia Armfield makes the home a place not of safety and comfort, but a discomfiting, weird space.

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote “you need not be a chamber to be haunted”, and Armfield’s exceptional collection seems to have taken that to heart and heartlessness.

This is an artfully confected collection. There are themes that run through each story – a prioritisation of the female voice, the home which is no longer a home, right down to specific images such as tangerines, skin diseases, absent fathers and an odd fearfulness about tooth loss. It is like a string quartet with an idea put forward, twisted around, brought back and set as variations of itself. It reminded me of Felipe Alfau’s Locos in terms of how disparate stories can be knitted and strangled together.

That may sound rather portentous, but it is a hugely enjoyable, if unsettling, book. It looks askance at the contemporary through the myths of poltergeists and werewolves. Armfield almost makes a quasi-confession of her method when in one story old-fashioned horror movies are a significant aspect. There is a poise here among the gothic horrors. But there are certainly horrors.

The visceral is key to this, and connected to the book’s concern about female bodies and male gazes. Menstruation is not – as in, say, Stephen King’s Carrie – a sign of becoming a monster; but a fearful, inexplicable thing. Men loop around the stories, usually inadequate and always with a hint of threat about them. But the key thing I would say to readers is that it is absolutely beautifully written.

The stories are as follows. A girl with her Grandmother’s dermatitis is wooed; a city becomes insomniac and its citizens’ “Sleeps” are nebulous, aggravating parodies of the unsleeping person; an attempt to make the Perfect Man (which is ghastly); a girl whose step-sister might be a wolf but wears rather attractive bonnets; a woman working for a mysterious band that seems to instigate riots of teenage young women; how to love an unfeeling creature; an utterly horrible story about jellyfish and divorce; a dead girlfriend coming back – the one thing everyone who grieves craves, but not with bits of the body falling out; and the title story, a post-apocalyptic tale of birth and regret. The latter has the line that haunted me the most: “The sky is gory with stars, like the insides of a gutted night.”

The prose is just a delight, wrong-footing the reader at every turn. The adjectives clash against the verbs, the names are sometimes wryly funny until the unexpected happens. My favourite line was: “My Father said a town was only as interesting as its bad apples and only as safe as its lunatics.” Second place would go to: “I told her that Evelyn Waugh’s first wife had also been named Evelyn and that the guy who voiced the Bugs Bunny cartoon had been allergic to carrots.” There is a smart-ass raised eye-brow in this, but with a deep emotional ache at its heart. Say the smart thing because you cannot bear to say the truth of a gruesome universe. In this respect, Armfield resembles Kelly Link, whose stories also intercut pop-culture and the preternatural, often to devastating emotional effect, or the work of Robert Shearman, who charms you along with wit until the stiletto hits.

Armfield’s work is difficult to describe in terms of genre. It would be feasible to call it horror, speculative, weird fiction, that tired adage “in the tradition of Angela Carter”, surrealist and many more. None seems to me sufficient. What struck me most is the odd similarity with a writer whose work would not be considered “genre”: Henry James. In famous works like The Turn Of The Screw or lesser known stories such as The Sacred Fount, James poses the great problem of such fiction. Is something supernatural happening, or is someone so psychologically damaged they believe something supernatural is happening? Even the most explicitly eerie stories here leave a chink of reality lurking behind their ghoulish imaginings.

The other author who loomed large as I read this collection was Shirley Jackson, particularly her novel We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Again, it is a book which merges the gothic with the psychotic, the eldritch and the mundanely tormented. It also deals with what it means to be a girl, to be a woman, to undergo change, to understand damage. Hers is a world, like Jackson’s, where women have to put on faces the whole time, where they are and are not themselves. It is horror for the Instagram generation.

There is a melancholy sense in reading such a wonderful collection of short stories and finding them so subtle, intelligent and imaginative. When I put the book down I wondered: will her first novel be as good?

salt slow, by Julia Armfield, Picador, £12.99