Dark Neighbourhood by Vanessa Onwuemezi tells stories like Goya's visions of hell, redeemed by a poetic light – Laura Waddell

Short stories, a form so underappreciated and yet so rich.

Images of paintings by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya displayed on video screens at the Fernan Gomez Centro Cultural de la Villa in Madrid (Picture: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

If the novel is a long tall drink, short stories are a shot: potent, heady, and quick to get the party started. Occasionally they take you to unexpected places.

My book of the week is the debut collection Dark Neighbourhood by Vanessa Onwuemezi (another gem from small press Fitzcarraldo Editions), a confidently surreal set of tales about families, private agonies, bodies, life and death, taking place in worlds a little familiar and a little fanciful.

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We meet the characters of Dark Neighbourhood fighting mentally and physically against the claustrophobic situations they’re mired in. Fate is not always on their side. More than once, as I read, my mind flits to Goya’s paintings of hell, depicting humans fleshy and vulnerable against forces bigger and badder. But what might be bleak and nihilistic thematically is lifted by the vivid kinetic energy of Onwuezemi’s imagery.

In ‘Cuba’, a story about women battling their nightmarish hotel cleaning job with its sprawling rotas (and more besides), a man “shoves the dog hard with his foot and it falls over, feet skitting across the brick with eyes rolling like oranges falling to the ground, or the roll of her father’s fists when he was starting a fight, moustache a lump of charcoal crackling under his nose".

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In The Growing State, a natural-born winner grapples with his successes, his regrets, and the unavoidable march of time. His daughter, now a mother herself, tells him: “You have a baby, then you see death emerging from the dark inside of your mouth. It was in you all along. I didn’t see that coming, no no.” The titular story explains it’s “impossible to avoid [Dark Neighbourhoods], only know that you’re in one when it’s dark – forward, sideways and back.”

Onwuezemi’s poetic skills shine here, reminiscent of the fizz of fellow short story writer Eley Williams’ work. I am not convinced, though, that the poetic typesetting, with its frequent tendency to leave gaps of emphasis before words, is altogether necessary (fortunately, it’s only marginally distracting).

But still, Dark Neighbourhood has arrived with a bang. It’s Gothic and mesmerising, but not so fantastical that the struggles within don’t have a fearful glint of familiarity, making for a chilling, lush autumnal read.

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