Book Balm recommendation: read when you need reminding that every person you meet has their own story.
Reading almost like a novella in flash and expanding outwards from her Costa Award shortlisted tale Red, Amanda Huggins’ latest creation is a tensely told yet heart-affirming work. The focus is fifteen-year-old Mollie, seemingly trapped in a nightmarish situation until she finds the courage to escape with stray dog Hal.
The friendship between Mollie and Hal is a steel thread through the story, offering solace and strength in the face of disappointments, betrayals and the occasional kindness. This is a journey full of perils and adventure, with happy as well as sour memories trailing behind and the hope of a safe return to what was once home ahead.
When Mollie’s mum Ellie meets Sherman Rook, it’s clear almost at once that he’s no good. “Something in his eyes glittered hard and bright as he appraised her cloud of unruly blonde hair, the jut of her determined chin and her long tanned legs.”
Before the chapter’s end Ellie and Mollie are moving to live with Sherman far from everyone they know. The sense of danger is palpable.
It contrasts sharply with the coastal life Mollie loves, close to her brother Angel and father. The close yet roaming third-person narrative allows chapters to read like flash fictions, with some focused on Ellie and opening up insights into her behaviour, while others share aspects of people Mollie meets only briefly, providing an exterior view of Mollie that helps us see both her vulnerability and gumption.
It all contributes to a richly layered whole.
In her debut novella, Amanda Huggins casts her lyrical storytelling over the ruggedness of wild oceans, churning grief and raw adolescence with dizzying potency.
Set in 1978, the salt and tides of the North Sea flavour Huggins’ words as she introduces us to Kara, named after a sea in the Siberian Arctic and a guardian sprite who carried shipwrecked sailors “into the clouds in fishing nets” spun from her hair. Kara simultaneously thirsts for adventures beyond her field of vision while yearning to dive back into the safety of her past. Huggins captures this inner conflict beautifully, highlighting Kara’s confused emotions against a backdrop of motorbikes, unsuitable suitors, nature and art.
When Kara’s art teacher Leo informs her that she’s eligible for “a funded place for a gifted student” on a three-week art placement on a Greek island, Kara is swept away under a swell of first impressions that absorb every sense. Yet misgivings murmur beneath the surface, even as Huggins’ ribbons of words saturate us.
There’s a conciseness to Amanda Huggins’ writing that makes me think of a stitch being drawn taut – her words pull the core of you to the core of a story until you gasp for breath.
Her Costa Short Story Award shortlisted tale ‘Red’ uses crimson dust to create a vivid, slightly melancholy landscape where a lone stray dog provides the hope, and a memory of better times provide the drive to reach like a scrawny sapling for light. Like Rowe, the protagonist of the preceding story “Where The Sky Starts’, Mollie needs to leave the place she’s supposed to call home or risk being trapped in a life that could suck her beyond sight of all hope, drive and light.
Huggins has a vivid mastery of words that whips up a setting you can virtually walk into, and uses that mastery to construct scenery that weaves the story’s mood around you: “Mollie hated the dark, brooding weight of the house, the trees so dense they held a part of the night’s heart within them even when the sun shone.”
It’s poetically precise and powerful.