-Reviewed by Dipika Mummery-
This Paradise (Boiler House Press) is an excellent collection of unsettling, inventive and hard-to-categorise short stories by Ruby Cowling, a London-based author from West Yorkshire who has won several notable prizes for her work, including the White Review Short Story Prize.
Many of the stories follow characters who are driven to the edges of their physical or mental circumstances, and explore how they work to take a step back from them — or resign themselves to their situations and step off the edge.
Several of the pieces take place in a world shattered by climate change; the title story sees Cara, a nanny who flees England to work in a tropical paradise, discover that there’s only so far anyone can run before the inevitable crashes down on them:
“Back in England, there was always the consoling thought of emigration. Yet if land the world over is being chewed up by the sea, and mild, verdant England has become a tremoring sewer, and now absolute fury can come to this paradise, then where is there left for anyone to go?”
In ‘On Day 21’, the story opens with an “unprecedented” nineteen days of rain as the unnamed narrator becomes overwhelmed by both the domestic boredom of stay-at-home motherhood and the always-on culture of modern life:
“Notifications can’t be ignored. Each one is like a bullet – I mean a bullet that would come out of a gun, not a bullet in a bulleted list, although these seem to be related in terms of urgency. You have to deal with them or they nag at you. You have to deal with them or they might smash through your body.”
She longs for the simplicity of childhood, at one point wishing she could reach up for the handle of a shopping trolley like her children:
“…of course I was grown, far too grown, and as I put my card in to pay I felt myself looming over the checkout, some giant redwood whose trunk was mostly rotted through.”
As in the above example, the writing throughout This Paradise is precise, detailed and often pleasingly surprising; in the opening story, ‘Edith Aleksandr, b.1929’, a woman in old age plagued by memories of how she became a dancer during the second world war observes her grandchildren as they play and notes that they “laugh and clap with the loveless delight of little gods”.
Similarly, a masseuse describes a distasteful client as “a white slug” in the short and shocking ‘Eliminate Toxins and Increase Blood Flow’:
“Skin like rice paper, flesh like jelly underneath, as if he’s spent his whole life on a damp mattress in a cellar, eating margarine.”
One of the standout stories is ‘Flamingo Land’, which won the London Short Story Prize in 2014 and describes a family in a near-future dystopian Britain where benefit claimants go to sometimes gruesome lengths to stay within the weight limits set by the government and continue to receive the funds they need to live:
“We’d been through four previous ops with Mum and although this one wasn’t the worst, she was running out of things to have taken away.”
It’s a grim narrative with flashes of dark humour, but, thankfully, the reader is rewarded with a pitch-perfect ending.
Other stories are notable for their unique form; ‘The Two-Body Problem’ has two side-by-side narratives of twins who grow up and apart, which can be read on their own, one after the other, or together as they appear on the page. Elsewhere, ‘The Ground Is Considerably Distorted’ offers another dual narrative where the main story is supported by news reports, tweets and text messages to depict the differences between what we may say and do in public and how we really feel.
Both formats work brilliantly to delve into the spaces between people, thoughts and actions.
This Paradise is an extremely enjoyable collection of stories that range from the speculative to the downright dark, and that will appeal to anyone with a hankering for narratives that take ‘what if?’ ideas to a memorable and highly polished level. I very much look forward to seeing what Cowling does next.