A review of She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent
They may not have the weight of a novel, but when it comes to writing fiction, short stories are amongst the hardest challenges out there. The trick – or one of them, for there are many – is in knowing where to start and, more so, where to finish. With little or no time for build-up, the reader needs to be sucked in instantly, transplanted straight into the middle of lives and settings that are unshakeable in their immediacy. She needs to be held there for the duration of the story, of course, but the ending, when it comes, is perhaps the most critical element of all. There need not be a resolution – being left wanting more is often better, in my opinion – but the reader still needs to feel something deeply. Hope, hilarity, despair, grief – whatever it is, it needs to linger long enough to create that small, delicious sense of loss.
In her recent collection, She-Clown and Other Stories, Hannah Vincent appears to have got this particular art form down to a tee. Pleasing in their brevity – none is longer than thirteen pages – her stories are all linked by the common theme of womanhood, yet incredibly disparate in terms of substance and style. Some of her characters are young, others old; some are mothers or grandmothers; others occupy the role of daughter or wife. Each is somehow defined by her place in society and relationship to others, a state of being often echoed by Vincent’s decision to give the narrative point of view to a character not ostensibly the main subject of the story.
‘Portrait of the Artist’, which opens the collection, is a good example of this: it appears on the surface to be about a schoolgirl, Carina, who hides alarmingly violent writing under her bed, yet is told to us from the distanced point of view of her unnamed mother. Another, ‘The Mermaid and the Tick’, is narrated from the point of view of a husband but is, in fact, focused almost entirely on his pregnant wife. In this way we often come to observe the characters in Vincent’s collection through a particularly defined lens – like peering through a viewfinder the wrong way round, we find ourselves able to see them clearly yet at an unexpectedly great distance.
At other times, however, as in ‘Benediction’ or ‘Carnival’, we are given full access to the main protagonist’s thoughts and emotions and even – in both these stories – confined in small spaces with her, be that the dimness of an optician’s examination room or a locked stationery cupboard. One of the most powerful stories in this respect, ‘3 o’clock’, comes towards the end of the collection and is narrated in the words of an elderly woman suffering from dementia. The text comes in blocks of different shape and spacing, swooping around the page in snatches of thought that are raw and unfiltered, both deeply engaging and somehow alien for both reader and narrator alike.
Most of the characters in She-Clown and Other Stories spend their time observing others and, to a greater or lesser extent, themselves. They in turn are watched by those around them, which gives rise to an almost labyrinthine assemblage of viewpoints that reflects how probably most of us live. And this – an examination of how we choose to live and what that means – seems to be the main thrust of the collection, something that appears to be close to the author’s heart. Vincent herself notices the small things, writing in tightly controlled prose that is at times lyrical yet never fails to get to the nub of the matter, and also has an excellent eye for humour, which she dispenses drily. At times relatively simple – this book contains one of the most brilliant lines ever to have been uttered in fiction by a philosophising child: ‘“If I ate myself, would I be fat, or would I disappear?”’ – the humour is at other times complex, bound up in the surrealism that hovers on the margins of every story.
That life is absurd is not a new notion, but one that Vincent certainly picks up and runs with. From unusual but completely realistic individuals such as Charlie, the she-clown of the title, to downright bizarre events – in ‘The Poison Frog’, Charlotte rescues and makes into a pet a real frog that is removed from her mother’s throat during an operation – surrealism is never far from this collection. Often sprung upon us in the midst of a story that has begun relatively normally, this use of the absurd is largely effective, tinged as it is with enough realism to appeal to even the most down-to-earth reader. Just as with life itself, you can never quite be sure what you’re going to get with this collection, and that is one of its many charms.
It is a shame, then, that – for me, at least – She-Clown and Other Stories doesn’t quite finish at the same high level at which it started. Growing more experimental towards the end of the collection, Vincent follows ‘3 o’clock’ with ‘G-lorious’, a futuristic tale in which many of the characters previously encountered come back in a utopian world devoid of men, and ‘Woman of the Year’, in which the main figures in each story are united at a mysterious prize-giving event during which floodwaters submerge the outside world. While it can be extremely effective to unite the characters from a short-story collection in one final piece, it unfortunately didn’t work for me here – I missed the intimacy that had made the collection thus far so enchanting. ‘G-lorious’, too, presented too harsh a cut from the more or less recognisable world in which the other stories had played out. Though both are well written and no doubt have their place, I couldn’t help but feel I might have preferred to read them separately.
Despite this slight disappointment, She-Clown and Other Stories is a bold collection well worth picking up. Blending much-needed escapism with thought-provoking realism, it illuminates some of everyday life’s more mundane sides, as well as a host of recognisable problems, ambitions and emotions. Strongly female without being pushy about it, Vincent’s voice is articulate, intelligent and entertaining – uniquely qualified to write this compelling collection, whatever its readers may make of the ending.