Review of Graham Mort’s Touch
(published by Seren, 288 pages, £7.99)
The Bridport Prize is one of the highest accolades for writers of short stories so, when those splendid people at Seren sent me of a review copy of this anthology by the winner of the 2007 Bridport, I was delighted. Seren Books are one of the few publishers in the British Isles to publish short story collections and they are to be applauded for bringing together these 21 stories spanning two decades of Graham Mort's writing career.
The prize-winning story The Prince is a mesmerising piece of prose. Recalling one summer in the narrator's Yorkshire boyhood, it is a rich meditation on childhood and death. Touch - the story that gives this anthology its title - is an equally fine but very different piece told in a series of alternating scenes, cutting back and forth from Miles in Uganda (who works for a UK-based NGO) and Carol, his schoolteacher wife, in Yorkshire. Each is contending with the daily battles of life, far apart from one another, and the story describes the anatomy of a marriage surviving this work-enforced separation. Several of the stories centre on couples. In Annik and Serge a husband struggles with his wife's mental illness, their stark situation reminiscent of a Beckett play. Blood from a Stone features a couple half-heartedly house-hunting: “She was from Wolverhampton and it never seemed to bother her,” the narrator explains, “She'd have been happy with a new house on one of those estates that made me want to scream." The tone of many of the stories is quite downbeat, evoking a slightly seedy atmosphere and a barely suppressed rage. In The Caretaker a single parent tries to cope with a sick child: “the lights were still on in the florists ... It was getting close to Valentine's Day. It made her want to smash something... "
For me, the opening story, A Walk in the Snow is one of the most effective - another story of a couple - and an impressive display of Mort's poetic talents: “snow-water floods the gutters and gurgles into grids. In one solitary entry we find undisturbed snow. It peers back at us like a blank page, quiet as a swallowed cry.” For once, the warmth of the relationship here seems to prevail over the hostility of the setting.
This collection is full of dazzling and convincing writing. There is not, though, much light to contrast with the dreary worlds many of these characters inhabit. My other slight grumble about Touch is the cover design which shows a woman wearing a necklace of amber beads (presumably taking its inspiration from the story Annik and Serge). It's not a cover which would attract many male readers, I suspect, if they happened upon Touch in a bookshop. These two criticisms leave me pondering two bigger questions for short story writers, readers and publishers: is there no place for humour or light-heartedness in contemporary literary short fiction and are anthologies of short stories - even those by male writers - thought to be only of interest to a female readership?