Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Book review: ‘Letting Go’ by Victoria Watson

Kindle edition:  £1.02, available from Amazon

Print length: 53 pages


‘Letting Go’ is a collection of eight short stories, or, to be more accurate, six short stories and two flash fictions.  The theme of the collection is “change”.  The reviews it has received so far on Amazon are the merest piffle.  Not only do I disagree with just about all of them, I would also say that most of the reviewers don’t get contemporary short fiction.  One of the main strands in the Amazon reviews is that the stories concern subject matter which is too harrowing or depressing.  That is a nonsensical and anachronistic thing to say about a contemporary collection.  I also reject the foolish notion that a story about a harrowing subject is harrowing to read.  A badly-written story about a harrowing subject probably will be harrowing or depressing, but a well-written story can be uplifting regardless of its subject matter – that is what art is all about, you idiots.  

I describe the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection.

Bye, Bye Baby is about a woman who has recently given birth.  The story is narrated by the woman herself.  The narrative voice is consistent and believable but I did not find the main character very likeable.  The narrator’s use of clichés such as ‘gentle giant’ was realistic but was an obstacle to any feelings of empathy I might have had for the character.  There is some good ‘showing, not telling’ in the story, but the ending did not surprise me.  This story showed some flair for writing and I thought that some craft had gone into it, but it did not achieve just that mixture of simplicity and guile which the best kind of short story has.  This next thing might sound trivial, but it also showed what I consider to be one of the collection’s recurring flaws: gross over-use of ellipsis (rows of full stops in the dialogue or narration, which are supposed to indicate that the speaker does not know what to say next).  I hate ellipsis.  I virtually never use it.  Using ellipsis to indicate that a character is perplexed or overwhelmed is like trying to show that a character is bored by writing a boring story. 

Cry Baby is about an alcoholic who is in denial.  The best thing about this story is the way the alcoholic narrator jumps from one problem to another without ever analysing or taking responsibility for any of them.  The ending, again, did not particularly startle me, but it was plausible and was well-supported by a satisfying and well-developed narrative.  This story is worth the cover price on its own.  All I would do to improve it is to take out a few semi-colons. 

I Should Have Seen It Coming is the most complex story in the collection and the one with the most unexpected twists.  It is about a female bank clerk who is made redundant and who tries giving tarot card readings to earn a little money.  There are some successfully-worked and clever ideas in it, but I wondered afterwards if it needed something to wrap it up in.  The one thing that is never dealt with is why the narrator is talking to the reader.  I freely admit that this is something I often deliberately ignore in my own writing, but this is quite a long story and, the longer a story is, the more conspicuous the lack of such a link is apt to become.  

Inside is a story which leaves the reader with a few unanswered questions.  Why was it set in the United States?  There seems to be no reason for this, other than the fact that firearms come into the plot.  The UK may have tighter gun laws than the USA but firearms do still exist here.  Also, the crucial part of the narrative journey – the epiphany – is missing.  The story read to me as an account of real life rather than a work of fiction: to paraphrase Alan Bennett’s History Boys, it was just one fucking thing after another.  

John: Home Tomorrow seems to be about self-deception and is a flash fiction rather than a short story.

Keeping Quiet began in a rambling manner similar to that of Inside, but improved as it went on.  It turned out to be a story about growing old.  It breaks one of the simplest rules of contemporary short fiction, which is that the narrative should cover the shortest possible time-span, preferably no longer than one day.  This story covers two or more generations.  I thought the breaking of the “get in and get out as quickly as possible” rule was done very successfully.  Breaking a convention and still producing a successful story is a sign of a top-class short story writer.  Again, it could be improved by removing all the semi-colons.

Maybe Baby is a flash fiction.  This exemplified two of the collection’s main themes: lack of communication in relationships and childbirth.  

The Waiting Game is a literary shaggy-dog story: a deliberate attempt to subvert the standard model of a short narrative and one which does not work in my opinion.   It also jarred with the rest of the collection.  

My conclusion is that the collection is definitely worth buying, but what Victoria Watson really needs is a top-class editor.  She clearly can create characters and situations.  But what she produces is sometimes unfinished, or missing a vital ingredient, or includes something that doesn’t need to be there.  I recently had my first experience of working with a qualified editor, and it was very chastening.  We went through three of my stories.  Each time, the editor began by asking me to explain what the story is about in my own words.  I now do this, out loud, for every short story I attempt to write.  If I can’t begin by explaining whose story it is, what happens, and why what happens at the end is significant, then I abandon the idea until another day, and move onto something else.


2 responses to “Book review: ‘Letting Go’ by Victoria Watson

  1. Paul Sharratt June 7, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Author seems to be obsessed with babies…

  2. wthirskgaskill June 7, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Do you mean that just based on my review, or have you read the collection? You are correct, by the way, but then childbirth and parenthood are fundamental themes in literature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: