Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
David Gaffney likes writing short stories, very short stories. Every one is 150 words long, no more, no less. In his terse, graphic paragraphs no word is wasted.
Each drama begins immediately. “She wore a dress with skulls on it”. “ ‘Here, catch,’ I said, and time slowed down as the vase arced through the air.” “I was a book recovery officer for the council.”
We know where we are and yet there is something quirky, a little odd, a little displaced to set the story going.
And then there is an uneasy sensual moment. The book recovery officer likes to “press my cheek against the leather and breathe in their damp earthiness”. Izzy “was terrified of permanence”. “She likes it that he doesn’t smell of Shake n’ Vac.”
The stories slip away from normality into the strangeness of other people.
Stories this short should work in stereotypes allowing our expectations to fill in for their brevity. But these stories don’t. They constantly tease and surprise, each sentence convincing in itself, but the next one unsettling, disturbing our expectations, leaving us unsure where we are.
Functional Market Area begins: “I helped Ivan load the eyes into his van.” The lazy pun is unsettling. We learn that “He loved driving the eyes”, that “He kept a glass eye himself from a woman he was in love with, and he said it had a pleasant aroma like the underside of a wristwatch that hadn’t been taken off for years.” Perhaps Ivan had no customers and tossed the eyes “into some deep river and there they lay – teddybears’ eyes, dolls’ eyes, human eyes, staring at the fish.”
You see how they work and they are here in all their profusion. Over seventy stories, everyone different in its own unpredictable way.
Take some titles: Blood in Flight; The Building with the Hole; The Mousemats Say Innovate or Die; The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head and The Periphery is Everywhere.
Valerie’s Head is a moral fable. She recalled her past boyfriends from the cellar and was able to control them. “The trouble was having no space in the front room for anything else.”
These are all contemporary tales, tales of urban life, of loneliness and meetings and failing relationships, of brown-field sites and blocks of flats. His people are like Phoebe, who couldn’t sleep because the cooling fan in her lap top has broken or like the man who left his wife “and moved into a converted barrel organ factory opposite a building with giant question mark on its side.” Or Sheila who “was a radiologist and liked to steal things from her neighbour’s flat and X-ray them at work”. Or Boylan who “was a smell comedian at the deaf and blind club”.
And then there are the phrases and the adjectives: “His nostrils prickled with the carbonised atoms of nothingness”; “it smelt like old wallpaper”; “flattened and sucked dry like extinct grass”; “her skin was the colour of polished rice” and “where the sky is the colour of aged Tupperware”.
I’ve never read anything like these stories before. They are idiosyncratic, imaginative, inventive. David Gaffney lives in Manchester, but comes from Cleator Moor. These really are sawn-off tales.
More Sawn-Off Tales is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street,Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.