While Vanessa Gebbie’s tale certainly fit the first part of this by being invitingly easy to dip into, it’s far more difficult to dip out of her short stories. In a few, brief beautifully spare paragraphs Vanessa has the power to utterly transport you, immersing you in lives that ring out with authenticity and enmeshing you in their emotions – all without a touch of sentimentality.
I was a little put off by the fact this collection is solely focused on war, as the subtitle Echoes of Conflict testifies. But far from being bleak or terrifying or gory, the tales shimmer with humanity – people grieve and remember and regret, but with such elegance that you’ll find yourself savouring the passages like the very best poetry. In Maiba’s Ribbon a boy recalls the day his brother lost his hands, in The Wig Maker a woman shares three truths, the last being the most heart-rending. In Cello Strings and Screeching Metal a musician explains why champagne bubbles transport her back to a single, shocking moment in time.
Each story captures a different experience of war, uniquely personal to the narrator, yet written in such a clear, comprehensive way that whatever your own background you’ll find yourself relating to their words. When a failing lift in a tin mine throws men to their deaths, Vanessa calls them “pennies into a well” – something anyone can imagine.
As it begins to rain over an aged former soldier, she describes: “big slow drops like clods of earth falling warm, wet, after an explosion” – translating the unthinkable into something everyday. As a result, the tales sink deep inside you and take root.
And often she makes you work a little to read between the lines, to understand the truth of what’s being said, as in the sad, funny and deeply satisfying Large Capacity, Severe Abuse.
Above all else, the tales bear an uncommon poignancy, subtly altering your perceptions of the world around you. It’s an uncanny power, but a welcome one.