Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Review: ‘Staying Afloat’ by Sue Wilsea

Published by Valley Press

ISBN: 978 1 908853 127

156 pages

GBP 9.00




I bought this book at a reading hosted at The Leeds Library.  Jamie McGarry, the editor-in-chief at Valley Press, was on a promotional tour with some of his authors.  The evening featured readings by James Nash, Michael Stewart, Matthew Headley Stoppard, and Sue Wilsea: each author read his or her own work.  

The book contains 19 stories.  Most of them are about 7 or 8 pages long, making them on the “short” side of a short story, in keeping with the current fashion.  The blurb on the back describes the collection as being about “men, women, and children, and the ways in which they keep their heads above water.” I would have said instead, “and the ways in which some of them keep their heads above water, and some of them drown.” 

 Before I get carried away, I will set out everything negative I can think of about this collection.  The story, ‘A True Vocation’, while well-written and containing dramatic tension, is comic and, in my opinion, jars with the rest of the collection.  This story is like finding an orange segment in a salad: it is not that I do not want to consume it – on the contrary – it is simply that I would have preferred it separately.  Most of the subjects dealt with are dark, and a few of them are terrifying.  This comic story seemed like a deviation from the main theme of the collection.

 I also have a few minor, technical reservations about some of the narrative voices.  I spotted what I would consider to be minor inconsistencies, particularly when the narrative mode is third person with limited omniscience.  This, as I keep saying, is in my opinion the most technically difficult of all conventional narrative modes.  This is more a criticism of whoever edited the collection rather than of the author.  I also admit that this is technical nit-picking at its meanest. 

And I’m not mad-keen on the title.  ‘Staying Afloat’ is fine as the title of an individual story, but I think the collection as whole deserves something that, while apt, is close to being unique.  There are umpteen books called ‘Staying Afloat’. 

 Apart from that, this is probably the best collection of short stories I have ever read by a living author.  That assertion will sound exaggerated unless I explain in some detail why I make it.

 This collection is an outstanding example of what is possible in contemporary short fiction when the writer gets the simple things absolutely right. 

 The first thing that Sue Wilsea does faultlessly is to start in medias res.  There are no preambles.  The first word of the text is the first word of the story. All you get is the story.    That might sound obvious, but it is something one does not always see, and here it is a major contribution to the addictively page-turning quality of the collection. 

 The characters in all the stories are powerfully depicted.  After reading each one, I felt as if I could have written a companion story featuring the same protagonist because, in just a few pages, I knew who the protagonist was – no matter how conflicted, exhausted, broken-down, or insane, and no matter how different the character’s background and circumstances were from my own. 

 The stories are all stories – not just bodies of words.  There are hooks, inciting incidents, story beats, climaxes, epiphanies, and (contemporary) resolutions.  In short: there are beginnings, middles, and ends.  The subject matter and the style of these stories is contemporary, but the structure of them would have been familiar to Aristotle.  In keeping with contemporary fashion, the endings mostly “get out quickly”, Raymond Carver-style.  The exception to this is the last in the book, ‘Dabblers’, which is set over a span of many years, and is technically not a short story but a very, very short novel (but no less well-written and entertaining for that).  Not once in reading this collection did I get to a last line and think, “What was the point of that?”  Sue Wilsea has assiduously applied one of Kurt Vonnegut’s maxims: the one that says, “Use the time of a complete stranger in such a way that he or she will not consider it to have been wasted.” 

 Those are the basic things.  There are many other things to be commended. 

 One is that several of the protagonists are, as the blurb suggests, children.  The age-range of the characters is from the unborn to the cradle to adolescence to adulthood to senility to the grave.  This lends the collection a universality which one seldom sees so powerfully.  This universality is strengthened by the themes dealt with: conception, childbirth, infidelity, bereavement, self-deception, self-realisation, loss, survival – all depicted through characters and details, strictly according to the method of “show, don’t tell”. 

 As one would expect in a contemporary collection, characters in various states of mental extremis – nutters, if you prefer – feature largely.

 The collection has a sense of place.  The cover illustration, featuring a stylised depiction of the Humber Bridge, indicates Sue Wilsea’s connection with the East Riding of Yorkshire, and its coastline.  In this, and other subtler ways, the personality and genius of the author becomes evident as the stories progress.


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