Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks

–Reviewed by Dipika Mummery–

If you’re in the mood for short slices of dark fiction that peek into the often unsettling everyday lives of people, Exercises in Control (Influx Press) by award-winning London-based writer Annabel Banks would suit that mood perfectly.

This collection of short stories and flash fiction is Banks’s first, having previously published a volume of poetry, DTR.

Each piece takes us into the daily realities of cleaners, transport workers, singers and other people who either crave danger or find unique ways to guard themselves against it.

The opening story, ‘Payment to the Universe’, uses the second-person perspective to show a cleaner who imagines taking certain kindly actions to mitigate the effects of a disturbing encounter at work:

“It’s a payment to the universe, so perhaps the cigarette you’ll have on your walk home won’t be the one to give you cancer. Perhaps the earlier bus has been delayed just enough that you’ll catch it…”

These kinds of thoughts crop up again in the title story, where a London underground worker is in the habit of balancing a coin on its edge on his kitchen table and records which way it has fallen when he comes home each day.

This seems to be an entryway into the darker workings of his mind, which we see when he notices a regular passenger on the tube platform and takes disturbing actions to control her behaviour.

When I first read these two stories, my initial thought was of superstition – the thought that if I wear my lucky socks today, that interview or football match is bound to go well thanks to some spooky connection between the socks and the event in question. But there’s nothing supernatural about the pieces in Exercises in Control. In fact, the situations of many of the characters would probably be described as rather mundane. It’s the way that they react to these situations that might be seen to be particularly bizarre. Yet the way that Banks articulates the thoughts of each person helps us to understand their motivations, at least partly.

This is helped by her precise, clean prose. There are no florid descriptions or pointless conversations; each story is carried along by sentences that regularly startle.

At the beginning of ‘Free Body Diagram’, the female narrator tells us that she goes hitchhiking every night, wearing the same hoodie each time “so that my body, found in some ditch, mudded and cut, will be easier to trace”.

In other stories, the startling parts come right at the end, harking back to those classic short stories characterised by a sharp, shocking twist that leaves the reader sitting up in surprise. ‘Harmless’ is an excellent example of this, where the narrator, a woman being harassed by a random man on the street, is freed of her problem in an unexpected way.

A Theory Concerning Light and Colours’ was similarly startling for me. Even though the signs are there that the narrator is a bit too fixated on the woman who eventually becomes – and then is no longer – his girlfriend, the way in which this obsession comes to a climax sent chills down my spine.

Exercises in Control is well worth your time if your taste in fiction errs on the dark side, and particularly if, like me, you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on huge novels and only have the attention span for shorter stories at the moment. I would definitely recommend spacing out the reading of each story to maximise the impact of the collection and give yourself time to savour each piece.

Find out more about Exercises in Control on the Influx Press website.

Reviewed by Dipika MummeryDipika is a short story writer from Manchester who is gearing up to have a go at a novel. Her day job is in digital content, and she is a voracious reader, frequent gamer, occasional baker and barely competent runner.

Twitter: @DipikaMummery | Website: dipikawrites.wordpress.com