If no one ever died, maybe we would never learn what it meant to miss them.
Kirsty Logan is a writer much in the tradition of Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman who subvert and play with fairy tale narratives to create new resonant stories for our time. I’ve read two other of Kirsty Logan’s books: The Gracekeepers (set in a water world with a travelling circus, mermaids and a bear) and A Rental Heart (a collection of fairy tales reimagined and queered) – both I would reccomend! A Portable Shelter falls between the two being both a collection of short fiction and a longer narrative told between the tales.
A Portable Shelter takes the Scherhazade approach to storytelling by presenting us with a sweet framing device to set up its stories: Ruth and Liska have promised that they will not tell any lies to their baby-to-be, but both women break their promise, Ruth tells her tales when Liska is at work and Liska whispers them late at night to Ruth’s pregnant stomach while she sleeps. It’s a clever device and allows the reader to be drip-feed snippets of their life as each story is prefaced alternatively by Ruth and Liska. It allows the reader too to interpret the significance on both the characters in the framing narrative and on themselves, drawing out double meanings and possible lessons each woman wishes to impart to their child.
The stories themselves are wonderfully varied and feature mermaids and selkies and werewolves and fishermen and hotel-resort workers. Logan has no qualms mashing the fantastical with the real and that’s where the charm of her stories often lie. The mundane butting up against the mystical. I’ll pull out a few of my favourite stories:
The Mother of Giants
This is story is told by Liska who describes it as ‘such an old story it belongs to everyone’ and is the tale of how women in a village suffering through a harsh winters try to keep their children alive despite the threat of starvation. Their solution is to abandon their newborn babies who they could only keep alive at the expense of their own lives to the wild woods and ‘The Mother of Giants’. The ‘turn’ at the end of the story is that the protagonist must face the reality, that what she must do (like many mother before her) is to do what’s best for her family and her other children. It’s striking in that not many stories explore motherhood or such unpleasant themes and depict these mothers as brave, wise and the real protectors of the village and its people. Like many of the stories in the collection it doesn’t offer up an easy moral choice or conclusion (like most traditional fairytale, Perrault I’m looking at you…) but instead engages with the murky grey areas that affect most people’s lives.
Another favourite – I think because it’s a thoughtful character piece with a layer of the magical (mermaid fisherman) and a sweet love story between two young men caught under the glass of small village life. Like many of the stories it has an almost dreamy, gentle quality which carries the reader along.
The Ghost Club
This is the final story, and the one which resonated most with me. The premise is a sort of support group for people who see ghosts of loved ones and who want to disprove their existence. It’s a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of what its like to grieve and the role that death plays in the lives of the living.
The novel ends with the final story and we don’t get to see Ruth and Liska again (which feels like a missed opportunity) but it does mean the book ends of what I thought was the strongest story and it offers up a comfort in the face of loss and sadness.
There are some clear overarching themes here: motherhood being an obvious one that occupies Ruth and Liska’s thoughts. Also love and partnership, what it means to be in a couple and how love can be sustained. Another major theme is grief and loss and how we learn to deal with death. It’s a poignant story to end on as the day of the birth approaches, how much should you prepare new life for the harsher realities of the world? What portable shelters can you carry with you as protection? (The stories of course become a portable shelter, as is Ruth as she carries and keeps her child safe and growing inside her) How safe can you make the world?
How much of death do you need to know to truly live?