There’s a short story in this collection, Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley) that is so brilliant, so filled with emotion and wit and feeling that when I finished it I had to put the book down and not read anything else that day to let its full effect sink in.
Eley Williams clearly loves words and language, her writing is filled with a sense of delight in what words can do: the sound of them, the shape of them, the meaning of them. She consciously wants the reader to pause mid-sentence and consider a particular word or phrase, to look at a word anew. This is no more so apparent than in the first story in the collection The Alphabet, which chronicles a person’s decline in language, aphasia: the loss of words and what this means in real terms, the loss of the words to describe love, to describe their partner, even their own thoughts:
The plot, yes — the condition of its being lost. I have a great deal of nostalgia for having the plot and a full vocabulary. Both have been lost gradually, along with the—what is it— marbles. My marbles, specifically. We have come to specific marbles. I have lost it, I have lost my marbles and I have lost the plot — the Holy Trinity of losing I have lost my faith in —wham bam thank you m’— ma —mate. Maybe the plot was connected with my marbles in some way. Maybe one plays marbles on a plot, plot being synonymous with pitch or field or court.
Like many of her stories, the characters are unnamed here only ‘You’ and ‘I’ so that they could be any gender pairing, any universal or specific person. It grants them an airy quality, a sense of voices speaking into space: parts of them are briefly outlined but it’s the words that are always in pin-sharp focus. Later in the same story the ‘I’ runs through the alphabet ascribing meaning to the shapes of the letters themselves in ways that are inventive and endlessly surprising: so that “P is cuckoo-spit on the length of a chive, cooling in the dew-dawn. Q is a monocle, discarded” and so on. Williams is careful however to wrap her clever wordplay in emotional and relationships so that by the end of the story you are left not only reeling at this new way of looking at words but also the emotional punch of each story’s conclusion.
Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley) is another story centred on a relationship between an I/You and describes the myriad of feelings the unnamed narrator has in an art gallery with their lover and being afraid to kiss them in so public a space and in front of a work of art. The piece contains multiple readings: it works as an exploration of queer identity and anxiety, it works as an exploration of the uncertainty of reciprocated feelings, it works as an exploration of art and language, it works as an exploration of neurotic personality, overthinking every action, and it works perfectly as an explosion of one brief moment of indecision and the sudden action of another. Williams combines words in such a way as to grant new life to emotions that have previously felt undefinable but become instantly recognisable, no more so than at the end of Smote when she writes:
You have leaned in, and have kissed me without even thinking about it
like it is the easiest thing in the world
and you stark me
and I am strobe-hearted.
I would be hard-pressed as a reader not to pause at such a revelation and search deep within oneself for what it means to be “strobe-hearted”.
The rest of the collection crackles with similar energy: other stories are as varied as a synesthete looking for a date, a Foley artists listening to the voices of the objects around them, a family on holiday who fail to save a hedgehog in a swimming pool and a person caring for rats that can smell landmines. Throughout themes of wanting, love, desire, lost-love, identity and of course, always language, emerge.
Come for the wit and linguistic gymnastics, stay for the raw emotion and brilliance.