I’m still re-posting old pieces from the original blog in a bid to preserve my favourites before it all disappears into the interweb ether. Apologies for slight lack of original posts recently, but I have been suffering with the lurgy and a chest infection, and generally feeling rubbish. Normal service should resume shortly!
Somewhere in the depths of this blog, in a post which I now can’t seem to lay my hands/mouse/keyboard/eyes on, I said that I wasn’t overly enthralled with short stories. Not that I dislike them, but just that I find short story reading requires an entirely different mindset to that of novel reading, and that it’s not a mindset that comes naturally to me. This year I have been making a concerted effort to break through this mental barrier, and have found myself reading far more short stories than I have in any year I can remember. I intend to keep to that plan, though I must say, whichever short story writer ends up next in the firing line is going to have a mighty tough time beating Clare Wigfall’s debut collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing.
It started on Saturday night. I was sitting at the kitchen table, sorting out the piles of books and papers that seem to gather there throughout the week. In amongst it all I found the review copy of this book which Faber recently sent me in the wake of Clare Wigfall’s recent success in winning the BBC National Short Story competition. I opened the book at the table and read the first few pages of the first story, ‘The Numbers’ (coincidentally the story which nabbed her the gong). That was it. Hooked. The Mill on the Floss stayed closed for the evening despite having less than 200 pages to go. Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, begun in ernest on Saturday morning was relegated to second place. Everything is Illuminated got shuffled another place down the pile. My attention was hooked on The Loudest Sound and Nothing. The next morning I picked up where I had left off, at the end of the first story, meaning just to read a couple more. Except suddenly it was 3pm, I was still in my PJs, and I’d read every single story. I can honestly say there wasn’t a duff one in the set.
The joy of the stories was that she managed to put across just as much in what she didn’t say as in what she did. The silences in the text were well-timed and added an enormous amount to the reading experience. A well-timed ending of a paragraph made me gasp out loud as it dawned on me what must have happened. Because of these silences, I found that I was investing part of myself and my imagination into the story too, and that made me care even more about the characters that Clare Wigfall’s wonderful prose already had. And wonderful prose it is, let me assure you. Never have I read a collection which spans so many places, times, ages, and backgrounds. Never have I read an author who is as comfortable writing in the dialect of a remote Scottish island as she is in the drawl of the southern states of America. In part, this might be one of the benefits of Wigfall’s life to date: according to the dust jacket, she grew up between London and California and now lives in Prague.
The most stand-out story for me was ‘The Parrot Jungle’, which follows Johannes as he takes a drive across several states with a floaty-skirted hippy and her teenage son so that she – Liza – can see a parrot theme park she had been to once before. The silences I mentioned earlier are perfectly timed, and you gradually learn more about Johannes and how he came to be driving across America. My other favourites included ‘When the Wasps Drowned’, which is a creepy story of a macabre discovery made by some children during the summer holidays, ‘Night After Night’, which describes the fall-out of a man’s arrest from the perspective of his wife, who didn’t suspect he’d done anything wrong, ‘My Brain’, about a mother meeting her son’s new girlfriend, and wishing he’d never grown up, and ‘On Pale Green Walls’, in which a young girl is scared that the Virgin Mary doesn’t love her as much as she loves Jesus.
I could go on and on about all of the stories in The Loudest Sound and Nothing, but I realise I’m getting ridiculously gushy. I honestly, honestly think that this is the best short story collection by a single author which I have read in years. And the cover is *gorgeous* too.