A.J Ashworth won Salt’s Scott Prize to have her debut collection published. “Somewhere Else, or Even Here” contains 14 of her stories. I’ve taken my time reading this as I found it best to read just one tale at a time and savour.
This is a good collection. Ashworth does very well with conjuring place and people. Her stories are full of evocative details even when describing mundane tasks such as putting tools in the back of a van and starting it up:
“…he laid his tools down in the back like they were offerings to the gods of work; stained and dirty offerings which had never yielded any blessings. Then he got behind the wheel, started up the engine and watched as the windscreen heaters blew air onto the tracing paper frost, making a glassy stain build and grow there.”
Astronomy is a recurring motif with characters studying the subject, having star tattoos, sending Chinese lanterns into the sky, having moon faces, gazing upwards, talking about the universe. It’s not merely the repetition of stars/planets/sky that unifies the stories, some of them feel related by character or theme despite the diversity of subjects. “Bone Fire” has a first person narrator who recalls Jeremy from the opening story, “Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls.” I wondered if the woman from “Offerings” was another perspective on the story “The Future Husband.” “Paper Lanterns” has a zanier counterpart in “Bananas.”
“Paper Lanterns” was a story I found a little obvious, although if one were to look for a textbook “good” story it ticks all the boxes. It describes the aftermath of a child’s death, but does so in an expected way. “Bananas” took an entirely unexpected approach to a similar event and was all the stronger for it.
Occasionally I knew I was being expertly manipulated. Ashworth has excellent storytelling craft and knows how to mine an emotional seam. Loss, death, grief, illness, fear, are all here. I favoured the stories that caught me unawares. Despite how solid “Eggshells” and “The Prophecy” were, I had an understanding of them from the outset. Of course, one can still admire a familiar journey, and I did.
I didn’t understand what was happening in "The Future Husband", or how it could resolve. It worked superbly; it was tender, note perfect, impossible. “Coconut Shy” was wonderful in its dealing with burgeoning sexuality and a disappointing beau contrasting with the older, experienced fairground worker “...who strolls from around the back of the counter, smooth and slow. Jimmy shifts to one side, looking thin and unsteady as a daddy-long-legs beside him.”
I think Ashworth is a writer who has much to offer and I thoroughly recommend her collection. I look forward to reading more of her in the future.