Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan works at the Guardian.

Me and Thee: Jayne Anne Phillips

Justine Jordan, 22 February 2001

‘Everything happens at once’ in the year charted by Jayne Anne Phillips in MotherKind – her heroine Kate becomes and loses a mother. The book records tiny actions and reactions: Kate changes baby Tatie’s nappy and her mother’s sickroom flowers, spoonfeeds mashed-up banana to one and morphine to the other. She lives in an eternal present: ‘her childhood past...

Dropped Stitches: Ali Smith

Justine Jordan, 1 July 1999

‘There was once a story that was told by way of other stories,’ the narrator tells a lover in ‘A story of love’, the final piece in Ali Smith’s second collection: ‘The end.’ This narrowly beats the previous shortest short story: ‘The last man on earth sat in a room. There came a knock at the door.’ In most of Smith’s stories one event sets off a glancing chain of associations that lead to a new perspective on a universal fact and a sea-change for the narrator. In ‘A story of folding and unfolding’, from her award-winning first collection, Free Love (1995), a widower wonders what to do with his wife’s hoard of underwear: Smith’s touch here is light enough to make the transition from virginal white to wifely pastel to elderly elasticated chart a life. In ‘Text for the day’, a woman alienated from her life tears her books to pieces one by one; and in so doing gives them meaning again, as strangers catch at the fragments and pore over the mystery of their incompleteness. The title-story of Free Love evokes the delight of first love-making, when life is ‘filled with possibility’; ‘A quick one’ catches the moment when a finished love affair, with all its messinesses, is finally resolved.‘

‘You,’ the mother of six-year-old Hugh informs him, ‘are the only white child in the whole of West and Central Africa, that I know of.’ The remote outpost of Empire, made up of a few crumbling concrete bungalows perilously perched between crocodile-infested river and ever-encroaching forest, had looked like Eden to the newly wed Arkwrights, fleeing the killing fields of the Great War with the noble colonial ideal of winning over the natives by example rather than terror. But it is no place to bring up an English child, especially one ‘born bush’ and already finding his metaphors in the pidgin English of the servants and his gods in jungle spirits and African fetishes rather than the cricket bats and Bibles of passing missionaries. So Hugh is exiled from his tropical paradise to the care of his aunt and uncle in ‘the land of letters and telegrams’, with only his homemade fetish packet and a sacred mark burned into his neck by the sympathetic houseboy for protection.‘

You need never explain yourself in the present tense. It is the most authoritative and least analytical tense in English, the stuff of dreams (the breakdown of cause and effect) and of experimental fiction, and marks a point where prose moves towards poetry. Susan Wicks’s background in poetry illuminates and informs her fiction (she has published three collections, as well as a memoir, Driving My Father). Both Little Thing and her first novel, The Key, use poetry’s building-blocks of partisan fragment and significant moment, along with a neglect of chronology: events are linked not by order of occurrence but by similitude. The narrator of The Key inverts an early relationship with a manipulative older man by taking the controlling role in her relationship with a younger man, twenty years later. She jumbles parallel defining moments from the two affairs so that it is hard to tell where to site intention and responsibility, and whether she is doer-to or done-by. The novel captures the way emotional wounds can stay open for decades – each time it is spoken, an ex-lover’s name conjures the same ‘sick gasp in the pit of my stomach like impotence or shame’ – and can even come to constitute a personality.’‘

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