‘You can almost smell it’ [book review]

A review of English Magic by Uschi Gatward

There is a definite kind of magic to Uschi Gatward’s debut collection. Published by the inimitable Galley Beggar Press, English Magic comprises twelve stories of varying length that all seem to radiate outwards from London, where Gatward was born, probing the shadowy spaces of countryside and coastline, and, too, the people who populate them. Disparate prose styles – some more successful than others – are united by a general, but not disturbing, feeling of loss, a gentle yearning for something untouchable, waiting just beyond our grasp.

Covrer image English Magic

Whether this indefinable thing is indeed related to magic – some form of it, at least – is hard to say, but it is a theme that Gatward returns to again and again. In ‘Beltane’, one of the most beautifully written stories in the entire collection, Melanie and Paul, a couple in their late thirties, drive out of the city to attend a May Day celebration held in a Hampshire field. Gatward’s prose is languorous, heavy-lidded, capturing perfectly the treacly heat and senses dulled by too much drink, now and again crystallising into moments of unexpected – sometimes unwanted – human connection. Though accepted into the core group of pagan revellers, Melanie and Paul are outsiders, able to feel but not entirely understand the powers that seem to be at work in the bonfires and plaited crowns of flowers. The reader, too, is kept partly on the outside: plunged into the story through Gatward’s lushly vivid descriptions, yet somehow never allowed full access.

A similar feeling comes sweeping through many of the other stories in English Magic, in which Gatward typically selects just one moment in her characters’ lives, permits us to see it in full colour and leaves the rest blank for us to guess at. The experience is not unlike looking through a pinhole camera – come close enough and we can see a tiny moment in minute detail; move away again, and the surrounding area is black. So it is in ‘On Margate Sands’, in which two university friends spend a weekend on the English coast long before the advent of the Turner gallery – ‘Margate, they agree, is a bit of a waste land’ – which is marred by the resurfacing of a childhood memory that may in fact have been imagined. Quite why it matters so much or what the resolution is, we never find out. But Gatward’s narration of this moment itself, with its dune-like shifting of emotions and barely visible recalibration of a friendship, is absolute.

Involving another trip to the seaside, ‘The Crèche’ picks its way through gentle humour as the members of a mother-and-toddler group cower in a grimy shelter on a rainy English beach. Beneath the wry smile, however, darker forces run through this scene – one of the children is very ill, but a faint sense of threat looms over the entire group. We seem, without quite knowing it, to have landed in one of Gatward’s surreal settings, worlds that parallel the country we recognise, yet in which everything is not quite right. This technique is at its most dramatic in ‘The Clinic’, the story that opens the collection, in which the narrator prepares to run away to the forest with her family, hoping to protect her daughter from the authorities. Cara, the daughter, is able to speak at what seems to be a prodigiously young age – though what this may mean for her we are, again, never told. A tantalising glimpse of a dystopian society is all that Gatward is willing to offer us; there is a sense that a novel could be made out of this story, but she seems quite content to reel us in and then, just as suddenly, let us go.

Drawing the reader so completely into fictional characters’ lives while still generating the frustrating sense that we know absolutely nothing about them is not something to be done lightly, or easily, yet Gatward seems to have mastered this particular style of storytelling. Her clear-eyed, tender prose, which alights on details of small but breathtaking beauty and is particularly good when it comes to relationships – between mothers and children, newlywed couples, old friends and maybe-lovers, we can sense deep wells of affection but also myriad things unsaid – more than makes up for her blatant refusal to provide more substance. Because there is a backstory to each character, we sense. And, in her most successful efforts, this missing element is responsible for the bittersweet sense of loss and yearning that accompanies each story.

Where Gatward’s style works less effectively – for this reader, at least – is in the more experimental pieces that are also among the longest in the collection. The fragmented ‘Oh Whistle and’ refers to characters only by their initials, a decision that is initially intriguing and serves to reinforce the political message but, after a few pages with scant character development to latch on to, does wear a little thin. ‘Lammas’, another fractured and political tale that takes us into the past, is based largely on scraps of dialogue and again makes it hard to develop a relationship with any of the characters. In a short story, this kind of bond is essential, and the lack of it here is all the more noticeable given the skill Gatward displays elsewhere in the collection.

While experimental can be a good thing, and English Magic definitely parades a wide range of styles and themes, it truly excels when it is more concentrated, giving us a glimpse of lives so captivating that the rest of the world simply falls away. There is perhaps no better example than ‘Samhain’, a brief story tucked away unassumingly towards the end of the collection, in which a mother and child walk home through autumn streets to dress their living-room window for Halloween. Over a matter of six pages, Gatward paints the lives of both individuals and a community, allowing a touch of magic to seep into her writing and creating a tangible atmosphere both familiar and surreal. ‘You can almost smell it’, she tells us (incongruously – the narrative is in the third person) when a neighbour lights a match in the street, and yes, there is the burnt flare of it mingling with the smoke and damp evening air. Like the conkers used as a metaphor in this story of searching, her writing is at its best when it does exactly this – parting the leaves to reveal a single moment, small and hidden, but solid and gleaming.

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