The opening story of Ali McGrane’s novella-in-flash The Listening Project, Arnie’s Bear offers a cascade of impressions, textures and churning emotions buried deep. It’s a clear indication of the treasures, and pleasures, in store from this beautiful debut, and the mastery at work. At less than a page in length, this concise flash has the depth of a novel-length exploration of the bewilderment of loss from the viewpoint of a child, Imogen.
This is the start of a journey of more than forty years, beginning when Imogen is seven, and her brother Arnie is nineteen – the age at which he becomes fixed by death. Each story is labelled with the year it is set, starting in 1976, and rippling through to 2019, with Imogen asking questions and seeking truths while finding her way through a world with the volume gradually being turned right down. In Life Lessons, McGrane writes: “She’s learned to lip-read, alert to clues, running parallel possibilities, backtracking, re-routing, bridging chasms.”
McGrane engages all our senses in her storytelling, so that your skin tingles and your lungs contract in rhythm with the protagonist’s. In Seedlings, we join Imogen in planting sweet peas, anticipating the scent and tenderly separating tangled roots as she remembers her brother through the colour green: “A darker green jacket with a hood. Green sea-glass ranged along his window sill. (…) Were there green flecks in his eyes?”