– Reviewed by Ruby Cowling –
Jo Lloyd’s The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies (Swift Press, 2021) is an extraordinary collection of short stories; a book packed full of giant ideas which set the intellect zinging, but never at the expense of entertainment.
The nine stories alternate between historical and contemporary settings: a structure that does a lot more than simply showing Lloyd’s range. While the leap back and forth between the elegant “literary” voice and a modern, vernacular style might feel jarring at first, the decision to spread the settings out over the last few centuries makes perfect thematic sense. In the past-set stories, we witness the birth of industry: the shift away from living on the land, and from taking direct responsibility for its wellbeing, toward a reliance on mechanised modernity and the exploitation of natural resources. In the present-set stories, we see this shift continuing to repercuss at a human level, and often find characters treating each other – as we do the land – with reckless carelessness.
Lloyd intertwines these elements quite explicitly in ‘The Invisible’. The inhabitants of an 18th-century rural Welsh village are enchanted by fantasy tales of a grander family, the Ingrams, appearing (invisibly) in their midst. As they enjoy the vicarious pleasure of imagined wealth and luxury, their curiosity escalates, but soon the contrast between the Ingrams’ and the villagers’ lives is stretched too far. Some think the Ingrams should be confronted; others can’t bear to let go of the dream, and they turn their anger on each other: “Rancour and rebuke creep among us like fleas”.
As the resentment deepens, their sense of society breaks down, and they begin to neglect their obligations to each other:
“The Prossers lose their cow… We should take them some of our own milk, a little oatmeal too. Perhaps tomorrow, we say, moving our feet closer to the fire.”
And this fracture arouses a new pain of class consciousness. The Ingrams are a disturbance – “a wave through water” – leaving the villagers suddenly aware of the difficulty of their lot. Having formerly lived “evenly, tidily” , they come to know they are oppressed: “Like grass,” they realise with bitterness, “we are meant to thrive unattended, underfoot.” The first-person plural is a clever choice for a story about community versus individual aspiration, and to say the story acts as a highly effective critique of Thatcherism is really not going too far.
Lloyd’s great skill throughout the collection is in her ability to gesture toward the big picture without abandoning the human scale. ‘My Bonny’ sets the stage for the book’s central concerns by showing us several generations affected by industrial change and the sudden arrival of the concept of individual agency. These are enormous themes, but we are held so intimately to the characters that we never lose track of the human view. In fact, Lloyd sometimes takes us right inside their bodies:
“In Euphemia’s own veins, small threads of remembrance wormed forth and then burst”.
As the opening story, this is where we first encounter Lloyd’s superb prose style: gorgeously lyrical in places, but balanced with a matter-of-fact approach to the tragic content, which punctures any danger of floweriness. (If I didn’t know she was Welsh, I’d claim her for the North.)
The tension between individual desire and that nagging-conscience big picture makes trouble for many of the book’s characters. They try to negotiate their obligations toward wider society, their families, and the planet – but in these stories as in life, we tend to be human, not heroic. The narrator of ‘Ade/Cindy/Kurt/Me’ knows this is our planet’s great tragedy: “I want, I want. There’s the sound of the ice caps melting.” And yet she continues to be driven by selfish desires, even while she reaps little but regret.
In ‘Deep Shelter’ we go back to 1951, and the story of a man’s abandonment of his family, seen through the eyes of his young adult son. The father leaves for no practical reason; he simply prefers the fantasy of a quiet life of the mind, an anywhere-but-here. Once again Lloyd beautifully presents a bigger picture, while retaining the relatable viewpoint. The subtle message here (and, in a present-day setting, in ‘Your Magic Summer’) is how seductive it can be to escape the difficult here and now; how the painful obligations of intimacy – this ‘noisy, crowded place’ – can make it seem necessary to flee instead to what we believe are “the grand, airy habitations of the universe” – as if that would simply get rid of our obligations to other humans. Even though, ironically, the father taught his children to ‘respect living things’, he tells his son he wishes he’d been born forty years later, which would ‘erase the birth of his children’. His escape into the easy land of the theoretical has the practical repercussion that his family – the ‘living things’ – suffer for the rest of their lives.
As in ‘The Invisible’, ‘Deep Shelter’ seems to admit: it’s tough here, so fantasising about a shinier and less painful life is completely understandable. But there are consequences to abandoning the here and now, to taking for granted what we have.
However, one of the great pleasures of this collection is its resistance to heavy moral judgement: it masterfully presents the industrialising and industrialised world in all its complexity and tragedy, but instead of lecturing, it uses humour. The title story, which crystallises much of the previous thematic material, is the funniest in the book (especially, for me, in its equine content, which is wonderfully charming – the loveliest horse characterisation since The Sisters Brothers).
Lloyd’s “HM” is based on Sir Humphrey Mackworth, a real historical figure who was born in 1657 into wealth and married into even greater opportunity – choosing a wife who stood to inherit vast tracts of Welsh land already leased for the highly lucrative business of mining. In an internal paradigm common in the rich, HM frequently reminds himself that his success is entirely down to “his own industry and excellent judgement”, and, on his damp and uncomfortable journey toward what he believes is an astonishingly abundant mine that will save his company’s fortunes, he warms himself with thoughts of his own genius and his divine right to the rewards involved. He is naturally far superior to “that disagreeable class of humanity, those who refuse honest employment, choosing instead to scrape a living off the land, like animals. They take anything they can eat or burn or sell… They trap and fish, empty birds’ nests, pull the very stones from the ground.” HM’s mines, raising ore by the hundreds of tons, are of course completely different: for him, nature has ‘thriftily’ stored up her riches ready for the use of ‘men of standing’.
However, the mud-and-blood reality of nature soon challenges HM’s hubris, and he is frustrated by his horse, the incessant rain, and the maddeningly elliptical aphorisms of Tall John, on whom he depends to take him to the promised new mine. Tall John won’t fall in line with HM’s capitalist imperative, instead insisting that things take as long as they take, journeys are the length they need to be, and the mud is equal to the mountain. At the story’s end, we are taken, thrillingly, into a sudden mist, and as HM proceeds down a literal slippery slope toward the unknown, he envisions a gorgeous industrially-improved future of ‘perpetual and profitable motion’, bringing education and comfort to all, though ‘the song of gears drowns the birds’. At once we recall James in ‘My Bonny’, at the beginning of the book, who sees the blown smoke from the forest of new industrial chimneys as “a hundred signposts pointing in the same direction, as if just over there, out of sight, was something wonderful.”
It’s this optimism, the fantasy of sunlit uplands that we use to excuse our choices in the present, that lays a kind of tragic irony over the whole book. Lloyds’ human world is exploitative, unequal and rapacious, and her characters know it. So do we. Because none of us is a pure villain, we even feel bad about it. But because none of us is a pure hero, we drive forward on the slippery slope nonetheless, toward ‘whatever lies ahead’, hoping for the best.
The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies is longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2021. As with previous years, Sabotage Reviews will be featuring reviews of several of the indie-published longlisted collections. You can read our review of Annabel Banks’ Exercises in Control and our review of Fernando Sdrigotti’s Jolts (both Influx Press titles).
Reviewed by Ruby Cowling — Ruby is a fiction writer and freelance editor, proof-reader and copywriter. Her debut short story collection, This Paradise (Boiler House Press), was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2020 and longlisted for The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2020.
Ruby Cowling’s own collection of short stories, This Paradise (Boiler House Press), was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in 2020. You can read our review of This Paradise by Dipika Mummery.