Treats by Lara Williams
-Reviewed by Nick Murray-
Reading Treats feels like swooping in through someone’s window and slowing down just long enough to see what the inhabitants are doing before flying through the opposite window back into the night.
It unfolds with the very first sentence and presents you with the hidden complexities of what can seem like a mundane life. The opening description of ‘It Begins’ is that of so many; graduating and falling back into place in your childhood home, a little too easily for your liking. Lara Williams boldly takes on the second person in writing this story, something that it seems that writers outside of interactive fiction seem to shy away from. Here is it wielded deftly. Suddenly you become not just the protagonist, but every character (fictional or not) who has found themselves in this situation. You become the everywoman or everyman. Williams doesn’t pull any punches with the tragedy of adulthood, painting it as a series of tiny defeats. Though laced with tragedy, her descriptions are nonetheless beautiful in their wistfulness.
You notice a single oat clinging to the hem of your skirt. You flick it off and it leave behind a tiny, white ”O”. O dear, you think. O no. You are annoyed at your mum for having made you porridge. You want to call her. If you think I am an adult, you want to say, then why are you making me meals consisting primarily of milk?
The tragicomedy here is expertly layered, from the clinging porridge oat on your crisp uniform of adulthood, through to wanting to complain at you mother for making you porridge, when in actuality it is the fact that your mum is making you breakfast at all that signifies the lapse into childhood.
This introduction to the flavour of the collection quickly gives way to the thematic meat of the whole thing when the protagonist, you/me/her, meets someone, who in a flurry of snapshots becomes a partner. Then just as quickly, becomes someone strange, maybe estranged. Without giving the reader time for any of this to settle (it doesn’t need to as we’re here for something else) our silent protagonist finds herself in the arms of another man. An instructor of some health fad. That’s as much as we get. It keeps him at a distance. Divorce shoulders its way in and years pass. Just as you think that the woman being led through this whole ordeal that is life finds herself and in turn finds solace, we are dealt one last jab to the ribs in the form of a later-in-life date. The man across the table is boorish and tactless, though this interchange is given more space than any until now. The story ends with the woman, still nameless and silent to this point, looking down and considering her hands. Life has passed and only the day-to-day routines exist anymore.
The issues with this collection are present from this first story, but only make themselves known as you continue through the stories. So many of the central characters within these pieces are swept through a series of events that lead further and further into dissatisfaction. Things seem to just happen to them and they simply watch and remain present, while it all unfolds. I found myself screaming for these women to have some agency. To step back from the life of quiet longing that they resign themselves to.
There are a couple of male protagonists in the book, but they somehow manage to be hugely unlikeable. They see their partners (they all inevitably have partners) as unspeaking floaty bodies, each with emotionally distant gestures and timid eating habits.
Elise was posh posh, proper posh, with that posh girl bohemia about her, something he used to find exotic, though now found a little daft, wafting around, thinking herself some idiotic hippy, coral painted toenails and how long she had let her hair grow. There was something very vulgar, very entitled about long hair.
This is essentially how we are presented Elise throughout the story ‘As Understood By The Women’. She is an abstract prize to be placed at arm’s length and nodded at for all its quirks. Even as the story progresses and they are about to get married.
The wedding, he felt, meant nothing to him and something to her, but believed the objective appreciation of this fact meant he would make a Good Husband, and Elise, with all her posh, sexy beauty, deserved at the very least, that.
The character of Elise still has no opinion except the one assumed by Jared, the protagonist of this tale. The story ends with Jared, confusedly not understanding why he loves this woman, or whether he even does or not, but deciding that it is exactly what he wants.
It’s the more in depth stories that cast a betraying light on the rest. After seeing some of the skilful layering of time and emotions that Williams brings to a few of the stories, you realise that actually some of the characters in the book become one-dimensional. Defined solely by their tragedy. Instead of events being something that propels the character through their own story, the character becomes another viewer, alongside the reader, observing instance after instance of despair.
These stories only show their hiccups because they nestle against the truly brilliant pieces in the collection, such as ‘Toxic Shock Syndrome’. From the very beginning, with its portrayal of puberty and the full-body discomfort of periods, seemingly routine aspects of teenage life cast tendrils into the later parts of the story and into the adulthood of Jennifer, the main character. The trope of daily tragedy is still present here, but it becomes a part of the story, dexterously woven in. The repeated motif of Jennifer’s size becomes a rhythmic staccato as opposed to a constant drone dragging through the writing. The conflict between Jennifer’s internal knowledge and what people try to convince her of keeps the story pushing ahead. Also, this story has the slightest touch of something out of the ordinary. A man loses consciousness on a plane after performing somnambulant frottage on our willing protagonist. It’s not too far as to be jarring against the rest of the story, but provides a sort of incidental tipping point from which the rest of the story rushes from.
Another high point in the collection is the story ‘Here’s To You’. Throwing the reader in after a break-up becomes a novel and clever move at this point in what has become a literary break-up album. Aahna is packing up her old life and soon finds herself back in the Midlands town that she grew up in, living with her mum and occasionally her mum’s boyfriend Bob. Through the story you are given snippets of Aahna’s old life, through interactions she has in the present.
At the turn she noticed a blank billboard spray painted over. What do you long for? it asked.
It reminded her of a picture Joyce [her ex-boyfriend] sent when he visited Berlin; Capitalism Kills Love, over a shop front in gaudy neon.
It is the ostensibly throwaway descriptions like this that, peppered throughout the story, tell you who Aahna is, who she was, and what it all means to her now. It’s the stories like this one that show you that Williams has an astute grasp of her craft, often throwing a joke in for herself, that we’re allowed to come along for, such as, ‘The call comes after class while you lie outside thinking about the uncanny. ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ you say, though, perhaps you were?’ Some are even quite on the nose; ‘You catch up with your friend Elle after work. She is a nurse at a cancer hospital. You tell her you’ve had a terrible day. That you spilled milk everywhere and then your boss was unpleasant. She tells you she’s had a terrible day. That a patient died and now she’s worried she’s going to be sued’. We get it, no use crying over it!
On the whole however, Williams guides the reader by the hand, reassuringly patting it along the way, through this collection of heartbreak. If you’re feeling particularly melancholy, then it might not be the right time for Treats, but if not, dip into this ode to crumbling relationships as it shows quite poetically that the relationship isn’t the only thing out there worth recognising.