‘Wine and Rank Poison’ by Allyson Bird

4 10 2010

'Wine and Rank Poison' by Allyson Bird, 164pp, Dark Regions Press, ISBN: 978-1-888993-89-9, $16.95 tpk

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

There are good ideas aplenty in this second collection of stories from Miss Bird (following on the heels of last year’s Bull Running for Girls). Tales of revenge enacted for wrongs committed are always guaranteed to have an audience, and this theme forms the core of all ten stories in this volume. In a little twist, there are references in each story to the one before, connecting each one in a loose kind of way. However, for me this collection was very much a book of two halves, and here’s why.

I found the stories in the first part of the collection hard to grapple with; unfocused, slightly scattershot and somewhat confusing in some instances. Take, for instance, Beauty and the Beast, a tale involving Cleopatra waking up to find herself marooned on an island, after her ship founders. On an exploration of said island she comes across the embodiments of ancient Greek archetypes, who lead her into a dreamlike subterranean palace (shades of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries, perhaps?), where she meets Pan and other creatures out of legend. Yes, there’s a hazy, insubstantial gauziness to the tale, but the ending wrenches you out of the dreamworld with the words “Then the dream changed and she saw that her empire was free of the plague, beautiful pyramids adorned the Cheshire plains and golden cities sparkled in the evening sunset”. That absolutely threw me. The excerpt from her debut novel, Isis Unbound, at the end of the book goes some way in explaining what’s going on – in isolation, however, it’s massively jolting.

Then, I was confused by one particular story – The Convent at Bazzano. The reason why the caretaker’s boys are followed by a shadow-pair is only partially explained – the very last sentence, however, confounded me completely and only left me wondering where it came from. Likewise, one or two other stories felt rushed, and the endings just appeared too suddenly (The Black Swan of Odessa and Atalanta spring to mind here). I reluctantly have to admit I felt a mite disappointed with one or two stories: the build-ups were good, but then everything just kind of deflated very quickly at the end and left me feeling bewildered.

I think part of the problem is to do with the short fiction form. Allyson’s ideas are there certainly, but I never felt that they worked up sufficient space or rhythm to enable her to tell the story properly. Compared to the novel excerpt at the end, where presumably she has allowed herself room to expand on her ideas and themes, the short stories just appear unfocused and staccato. The language is broken up into short sentences, which denied the stories a chance to flow naturally and fluently. Six of the stories here all fitted within ten pages each; the impression I got was that this was a deliberate restriction. For my part, I would much rather have seen fewer, fuller stories, where Allyson’s imagination could have been allowed more freedom in which to roam. To my mind that would have felt more satisfying.

It’s not all doom and gloom however; there are some great stories in here too, in particular Vulkodlak (a take on werewolves and much-deserved revenge), The Legacy (a truly horrific story, where the disjointed nature of the tale is served well by the narrative structure), The Last Supper (a claustrophobic riff on what happens after a family funeral brings up the grief-stricken past, as well as unearthing buried secrets in the process), Coney Island Green (a strange, macabrely sad fairytale-like outing) and, the highlight of the book, For You, Faustine (in some ways a continuation of the Coney Island Green theme). In each of these five tales, the themes are stripped back and laid out directly, exposed to the scrutiny of all. Simple, understandable motivations, with simple, equally understandable results run through each of the five – nothing complicated or obscuring, things we can all relate to.

For what it’s worth, then, here’s my overall take on the collection. The ideas, like I said above, are definitely there; I have no doubt about that and you can feel them wanting to burst through. What let some of the stories down was the way in which they were told. Allyson needs, I think, to step back and let the stories tell themselves, at their own pace and in their own time (granted many of the stories originally appeared in magazines and anthologies, so I get the space restriction thing). I also have a feeling that an outside editor would have been very useful here – I got the distinct feeling that Allyson knew what was happening, but that didn’t necessarily get telegraphed to the reader. The prose, I felt, needed to be tighter and more precise.

Don’t think for one minute that I consider Allyson Bird a bad writer: I don’t. I feel she just needs to take her time (and yes, I am also aware that Miss Bird was writing the Isis Unbound novel [which I am very much looking forward to reading] AND editing the Never Again anthology while this was being put together). I just found it a pity that, with this being my first experience of her writing, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – however, I would rather be honest than otherwise.

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