Tuesday 1 March 2011

'Scorched but better'

Ten Stories About Smoking
by Stuart Evers

When the Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh stepped out of the posh seats and wrote a play of his own a few years ago there must have been plenty of actors out there who had suffered at his sometimes poisonous hands and looked forward to reading a pasting from his colleagues. They were to be disappointed as the play received not only positive reviews but a West End transfer and in the end they must have begrugingly respected the courage it must have taken to move from critiquing to writing. Stuart Evers is also a critic whose reviews I have enjoyed in the Guardian and elsewhere and I can't imagine there will anyone hoping to see his debut collection of stories stumble as, judging by his blog musings and tweets, he seems to be jolly nice chap. That said, the bravery remains, as I know it is one thing to critique the work of others and quite another to put your name to your own creation.

Before we even talk about what lies between the covers I think we have to applaud an early candidate for best book design of the year (I know, it's only March) - a delicious boxed volume that plays into the hands of any fag-packet fetishist. Whilst the stories contained within are brought together under the title Ten Stories About Smoking none, bar maybe the last one, are really about smoking as such but use it as a loose linking device. Thankfully it never feels forced, assuming different levels of importance in each story, and often a brilliantly effective way of involving the reader sensually in a story. In Things Seem So Far Away Here a young woman goes to visit her brother and his family in their large house in the country. Evers is brilliant at dropping bald statements that suggest something major about a character and then moving on with the story, a technique that leaves you slightly shocked. Here, Linda, seems to be recovering from some kind of eating disorder or physical trauma, hinted at as she freshens up after her journey.

In the mirror she was partially clothed by the steam, but she could still see where there was the odd scar. Her ribs were plainly visible, her hip bones too; she looked better though, not quite so skeletal, nor so bruised...Scorched but better, she thought. Rolling with the punches

This trip for her is not a simple family get together but one that she hopes will lead to a form of redemption, a new start as nanny to her brother's daughter (an ambition all the more important when combined with the suggestion that her own chances of conceiving may have been diminished by her recent traumas) in a house that will provide the kind of sanctuary presumably missing from her life so far and certainly from the support groups that she has been frequenting recently. The daughter, Poppy, has been awaiting her arrival excitedly and Linda, as excited herself,  has hand-knitted a jumper for her as a gift. This jumper becomes a symbol of her delusions and the difference between what she wishes for and the reality of her life. Having been warned by her partner about being too clean she realises that 'only when you're clean do you realize just how dirty life is' and her bag of belongings, after that freshening-up above, suddenly carries the strong whiff of stale cigarette smoke.

She removed the plastic bag in which she'd put Poppy's jumper. The jumper was wrapped in paper decorated with illustrations of horses. She put her nose to it gingerly, hoping perhaps that somehow the package itself had escaped being tainted with the stench. But it hadn't. It smelled dreadful.
Linda unwrapped it just to be sure. The smell was noxious, insufferable, so strong she could feel it taking over the air in the room. She held it towards the light, and noticed that the horses on the front were no longer white but a dirty yellow colour, like old men's teeth

For the new mother in Eclipse the smell of cigarette smoke is something she claims she would probably miss having appeared to have lost that sense since giving birth to her child seven months ago. Whilst her partner claims that their house always smells of 'spilled milk, talcum powder and nappies' she can only take his word for it and this is important because she is convinced her partner is having an affair. In fact she even believes that this affair is the thing that allowed them to become pregnant in the first place, coming at a time when they were wallowing in six months of 'thermometers, cycles and bored, routine sex.'

How I knew, I can't say. It just flashed before me, like ticker tape, as he took a bottle of wine from the fridge: he has fallen deeply, madly in love. That radiance you get when pregnant is nothing to the sheen that comes with such passion and devotion. It burned through him like an eclipse: beautiful, but dangerous to look upon.

But she lacks the olfactory senses to catch him out and has found no traces of lipstick on any collar, she is left to stew at home with her suspicions and when he returns at the end of the story she snuggles in close in the hope that something will give him away.

I put my cheek next to his and breathe in through my nose as much as I can. There is nothing, not even a breath. And then, for a moment, I think I can smell cinnamon and plums, and her, and then cigarettes, and then beer, and then just the smell of the outside world.

And that last part of the last sentence is the key for me. It may be a story about the suspicion of infidelity but it is fundamentally about the yearning of a woman, who has been consigned to the domestic prison of new-motherhood, to rejoin the outside world. Cut off from the daily life of her own partner she is left to construct the most dramatic narrative imaginable.

Smoking is sometimes just the spur to begin a story as in the enigmatically titled Lou Lou in the Blue Bottle. Here we move away from the British domesticity of the stories I've mentioned and over the Atlantic to Brooklyn. Rob goes to the gym owned by his friend's uncle, determined to follow O'Neil's lead in quitting smoking and kick-start a healthier lifestyle. He finds a treadmill covered up, switches on the power and steps onto it, only to be nearly sent crashing to the floor by another guy in the gym. This altercation settled by Uncle Charlie, Rob eventually gets his chance to run and discovers it is something he is surprisingly well-suited to.

And then, as I looked at my shoes, I felt something swell inside of me, like something was opening and all my body's molecules were splitting apart. I felt light, unencumbered, as though everything extraneous to the act of running had been erased...I felt that I could - no, that I should - run for ever.

Only after this first session does he learn from Charlie why the treadmill should cause such an extreme reaction, a story close to Charlie's heart, a sad tale of running, obsession and secrecy. It is a compelling tale and the collection as a whole shares that ease of storytelling, most of them keeping a single focus with only the last story, The Final Cigarette, playing slightly with the format. Here there is a dual narrative as we watch two men, one in Reno, the other in the grounds of a UK hospital, enjoy what they swear will be their last cigarette. It is a sweet story that neatly undercuts the sentimentality of the American ending by having the British counterparts use the same last words with an altogether different tone. This is a very easy collection to enjoy, there is something decidedly more-ish about Evers writing that makes you want to indulge yourself with just one more and then another, before you realise that you've polished off the lot. They might almost come with a health warning of some kind.


Anonymous,  1 March 2011 at 11:05  

This does sound good I follow stuart on twitter and know he grew up in the same town as me ,I will get this at some point ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 7 March 2011 at 10:54  

Hope you enjoy it Stu. Not only is it a good read but the boxed edition is really rather lovely.

Max Cairnduff 15 March 2011 at 18:41  

This will be a rare exception to my paperbacks or ebooks only rule. I'm rather looking forward to it and in that edition it really is a must.

William Rycroft 16 March 2011 at 09:29  

If publishing really is as screwed as some think then I think books with this kind of design effort behind them will be the future for the printed word. Let the masses download the books they simply want to read and let publishers produce books that people simply have to own, touch and enjoy. This one's a beaut.

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