Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity by Ella Frears

-Reviewed by Phoebe Walker-

Ella Frears’ debut pamphlet, one of the first in Goldsmiths Press’ ‘Shorts’ series, opens with a “near abduction”. That first prick of shock, that little lacuna that opens between normal life and tragedy, shadows the entire book, a lyric sequence which shrugs off the narrative pressure of a single, long-form piece. Rather, this is a fine, sinuous piece of writing, following the psychic turns that unspool from the opening event, and its dramatic interruption of consciousness.

Immediately following this opening, which inspires the smell of “something new in me”, the narrative veers into the relation of

[…] a story about a man who made shoes for spies.
These shoes were made to be given to the enemy

The abrupt turn into impersonal prose poetry, the sense of detachment and weirdness (“These shoes would inexplicably change the shape of their feet”) feels deliberate; following the sting, there’s a benumbing, and then a gathering of the voice. This is its first, dispassionate expression, which sets a disquieting tone – there follows a series of seemingly detached events and meditations that slowly revel their insidiousness, and their interconnectivity. One is about a man “paid to dress as Merlin”, who one day “picked up a toddler and began to wade into the sea”; in a later section, Merlin reappears on Halloween night, his face “made-up like a skull”. Elsewhere, a sinister roommate lies about sleeping with the narrator, who later finds “a Dictaphone taped to the underside of my bed”. A man picks up our narrator in a bar, with the line that she looks just like his estranged wife – although a photo in his house proves that she “looks nothing like me”.

Throughout this pamphlet these uncanny swerves, skilfully related, carefully paced, build a sense that the narrator is trying to shake something off, the obvious thing being the memory of the near abduction, although she slowly circles back to it at various points: once as she stands over the hotel bed of the suspected man, deciding it’s not him, another time re-telling the story of it, and to do so she has to 

[…] put on his voice, say the things he said –
first sweetly then severe. I see the effect on dinner party
guests, on my parents, on you when I told you

But there’s more here than coming to terms with a terrifying event. The tone of detachment, which at first reads as a coping strategy, starts to feel more like a corrosive condition, and something that’s not solely the product of one decisive, or even individual, trauma. Frears figures this idea from the female perspective so well: when the narrator sleeps with the man who tells her she is the image of his wife, she observes:

At his house surrounded by his wife’s possessions
he shares a joke with himself on my body
Mostly, it seems to be some sort of re-enactment,
but towards the end it feels more like a vendetta

As a child, the narrator laughed as the abductor tried to lead her away, and today “that same laugh” is still always to hand:

I don’t know,     I don’t mind,
I’m sorry it says. 

Here and throughout, Frears shows us the attrition of quiet contempt, of small practised cruelties from perpetrators who are almost always male; when the lying (female) housemate tapes the narrator’s conversation, she seems baffled by this, wondering “What can a woman take from a woman?”. The impact of such attrition, and the learned behaviour it engenders, is clear; even a tentatively romantic scene with “you”, where there is moonlight and a steak dinner, there is also disquiet, “the blood coating my tongue as both you/ and the moon intensify”.

Among the many things that this work quietly conveys is the idea of detachment as a symptom of fear, but also (especially where it hardens into loneliness) as an evil in its own right. In trying to outrun what may be greater or lesser calamities, there’s the danger that you can ultimately outstrip yourself, becoming someone less than, or other; that you “take what I’m told I want”, and are too ready to welcome the idea that “there is always someone to tell you/ that your heart is broken”. 

Our narrator (referred to as ‘Ella’ so that the border between author and persona becomes, for me, as unsettled as everything else), although knowing and self-aware, someone for whom “you’re fun” is a deadening observation rather than a compliment, still struggles to inoculate herself against this diminishment – that vaccine perhaps doesn’t exist. The greatest danger in all this, we realise, is the failure “to reach anything substantial”, the idea of potentiality here made deliberately oblique, deliberately huge. The struggle is to overcome it, to refuse to wear the shoes the enemy makes. The pamphlet’s composite title, initially perplexing, is perhaps better understood in light of this, with a hint of hopefulness in the knowledge that ‘acclivity’ does refer to an ascent, as much it is also an uphill struggle. 

This is a work that hugely repays re-reading in order to best appreciate its revealing shifts in tone; the way it skewers and ironises strident contemporary messages about sex, misogyny, relationships, self-care; and most of all for the cool, clear intensity of Frears’ writing, which has the power to devastate completely between one line and the next.