Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Brief Lives by Christopher Meredith, pub. Seren 2018

The six short stories in this collection range in time from the 1940s to the present and beyond, and are arranged in chronological order. I even thought, when I first read through, that I could detect gradual language change in them, but it isn't that, it is rather a very keen and natural eye for period detail, so that one really feels one is in the postwar Valleys world with its Woodbines. cockroaches and the novelty of babies being born in hospital ("Progress"), or, later, in "The Cavalry", the same milieu in the changing times of the sixties, with TV and consumer goods just beginning to infiltrate a world where men could still recall war service and council estates were aspirational places to live:
They came to the end of the council houses and to the start of the terrace. The last estate house had the gable end of the terrace instead of one of its front garden walls. She'd known it before the estate was built but it was hard to remember. The terrace of Stanley Street used to point up the hill to nothing but some old mountain and a coal tip, some old farm. Yet it wasn't all that long ago. […]

It was still unchristmassy here. Mark looked at the front room windows as they passed. It must be funny to have no front garden.

Mark, a small boy, is one of the two point-of-view characters in this story (if any wiseacre ever tells you two POVs won't work in the same story, point him at this one) and as he has done before, Meredith proves adept at seeing through a child's eyes in a completely matter-of-fact and uncontrived way:
Christmas didn' happen outside the house, like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. it was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn' care what it was supposed to be like.
It may seem odd, when looking for a theme in a collection of stories, to start in the middle, but in this case it feels appropriate. It seems to me that the preoccupation common to all of them is human contact, and this comes over most clearly in the two middle stories. In "The Cavalry", a woman who works as a home help goes out of her way, on Christmas morning, to make contact with a lonely old man, and teaches her children to do the same. Later she is dissatisfied with her efforts and feels she should have done more, resolving to go and see him again very soon – "she'd heard of Home Helps finding people. She didn't want to leave it too long".

In the next story, "The Enthusiast", set in the present, a man is accidentally reconnected via email with a childhood friend, Paul, whom he has not seen or thought about for many years. This sets off a train of memories connected with his childhood and young adulthood. The email correspondence continues but they live far enough apart for the protagonist not to think about actually arranging a meeting – though the way he over-analyses the content of Paul's emails and his own replies suggests he would like to. Then something happens which not only renders this impossible but also forces him to comprehensively re-interpret the emails he has been reading.

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two stories that the reason communication partly succeeds in one and fails in the other is the difference between face to face contact and email. But this is misleading. The first story, "Averted Vision", takes place during World War 2; there is plenty of face to face contact and a catastrophic failure of human communication. In the second, "Progress", set in 1950, a man in what sounds like a happy marriage is nevertheless unable to communicate to his wife his understandable reasons for taking an important decision and resorts to a lie. And in "Haptivox", set in the future, a couple seems to achieve quite an enjoyable form of communication via virtual reality. Even here, though, the couple's dream of complete union is shown to be ultimately impossible:
It seemed to her that they were like two huge buildings, or cities, with their complications of floors and passageways, stairwells and liftshafts, the lacework of girders and fills of brick and concrete and then the surges of electricity and of fluids, the traffic and commerce of every day. Imagine all that thinning and becoming porous, and then these two universes interpenetrating, the stairwells from different buildings intertwining and joining, the skeletal architectures permeating one another and interlocking. The mechanical inhabitings of sex, the crude transformations on the beach were nothing to this, where the different-same energies whispered in the different-same channels. And he felt this too. All the space that matter is made of suddenly understood itself, and was generous, and let the other in. Their different grammars and lexicons didn't just blend into a creole. They atomized as they crossed and reconfigured. And once this had happened there could be no images, nothing to observe, only this new building, with nothing outside its own self-awareness and an apprehension of the marvellous.

And immediately some part of this new place started to fail. Images started to return of lights going out and pipework cooling, a sense of some shrivelled, hard thing disconnecting itself back into being.

Individuality reasserts itself; it may be that we are all ultimately "unreachable" like the old man in "The Cavalry" or "the imperfect likeness of a quick, intelligent face, glimpsed, so to speak across a gulf" ("The Enthusiast"). But the human impulse is to attempt to bridge that gulf and it is such attempts that these stories chronicle.
Tags: book reviews, christopher meredith, short stories, wales
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