‘The Beautiful Room’ by RB Russell

21 09 2010

'The Beautiful Room' by RB Russell, 12pp, Nightjar Press, ISBN: 978-1-907341-04-5, £3.00

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

As in my previous review (of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, also from Nightjar Press), this eight-page story is a masterpiece of understated and compact tale-weaving. Superficially, it’s about a dream becoming a nightmare, but there are layers and subtexts here that add up to a dissertation on the complex interactions implicit in any relationship – and being able to negotiate those complexities fluently (or otherwise) can either make or break that relationship.

It all starts innocently enough. A couple, John and Maria, are out property-hunting, and have found a beautiful room suffused with light filtered through muslin curtains. Maria wants to take the room, situated in a house in the country; John prefers the flat in the city. Naturally, in as fraught a pursuit as looking for somewhere to live, nerves get frayed and an argument bubbles up. Soon, however, the pair are distracted by scufflings and scrabblings coming from within the walls. Maria wants to rescue the birds she feels are trapped within the walls; John just wants to get out and get back to the city. It is at this point that the tensions, and the noise, are ramped up in volume.

A simple premise, but nothing more than a mask disguising some complex emotions and relationship dynamics. The tensions were already there to start with, of course: tiny hints are dropped that this is a way of life for the couple, that unresolved and simmering conflicts lie just below the surface. Here, at this intersection of time, the room and the events act as both a focal point and as a pivotal moment: choices need to be made, either through accident or by design.

The moment the birds start flapping about inside the walls is the moment when the fuse has been lit. Maria desperately wants to rescue the birds she thinks are there (and which can be seen as being symbolic of the relationship itself) but John is reluctant; in other words, John just wants things left to work themselves out whilst Maria wants to actively tackle the problems. In fact, one gets the feeling that John’s instinct is to run away and ignore the underlying problems. However, the noise multiplies as soon as John does try to help and the static between the two increases (in the form of an increase in noise and activity from the birds), in effect blocking (or at least garbling) communication between the two. The noise of the flapping increases to such a level that neither can hear the other and a point of no return has been reached, signalling that neither is prepared to listen to the other. Additionally, even when the pair separately yell out the window for help when their only exit gets stuck, there’s no-one out there to respond. The issues have to be faced and resolved by them, and them alone.

Revealing any more would spoil this beautiful story for any potential reader, but suffice to say that the ending is somehow inevitable. Russell has a deft, airy touch and the tale starts lightly and brightly; this is a young couple, forging ahead career-wise and grabbing every opportunity presented. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when we learn that a subtle darkness exists between them, a darkness that doesn’t need much to overwhelm and drive the pair apart. John is an angry and somewhat selfish man, pointing out that he expects Maria to support him in his new job and all that the move to the new country entails, and to put aside her needs and wants in the process. There is also the hint that the city represents order and security to his mind. Conversely, Maria is much more in tune with the freedom and spaciousness that the rural life symbolises – once more we are reminded that divisions, apparently irreparable ones, eat away at the heart of the relationship. Those divisions are only emphasised by the pandemonium created by the birds, both when trapped within the walls and when John eventually releases them. And, like I said, that situation only has only one ending.

The best writing works on many levels simultaneously, as The Beautiful Room does. As brightly as the story starts, it doesn’t take long for the rot at the core of John and Maria’s relationship to make itself known, albeit unfolding subtly and very gradually. And even when the chaos starts we’re not entirely sure whether the tensions are just the result of the present situation. However, it isn’t long before the reader realises that here is something a lot deeper than just two lovers having a disagreement – it becomes obvious that there’s something fundamentally fractured (and fracturing) between them. And that perhaps the widening chasm that has steadily been growing in their relationship has got to the point of being too big to be bridged.

But the thing that strikes most of all is Russell’s writing. It isn’t direct, in the way some writers are, but is oblique, effectively masking (in the case of this particular story) the deeper undercurrents that bubble just underneath the illusorily calm surface, which are only revealed very gradually and piecemeal. With a few deft strokes of the pen, Russell opens up the festering wounds that exist between John and Maria but without ever losing that lightness. It’s that sharp contrast that helps to underscore the horror of the situation, both in the pandemonium instigated by the birds and the state of the relations between the couple. We ARE horrified, once we realise just what is going on, that they have let things get this far without attempting anything like a form of reconciliation. However, learning about John also, paradoxically, leaves us with hope that maybe Maria will find her own path, and be allowed to soar on her own terms.

What more can I say? Simply that, in my opinion, this is a stunning little story, simply and understatedly, as well as artfully, told. I find myself wishing that I’d heard about these little Nightjar Press chapbook gems a lot earlier – admittedly they haven’t been around for very long, so far only releasing four others (Michael Marshall-Smith’s What Happens When you Wake up in the Night (which won a BfS Award this last weekend), Tom Fletcher’s The Safe Children, Alison Moore’s When the Door Closed, it Was Dark and Joel Lane’s Black Country – watch out for reviews of the last two very soon) and all issued in the same format and in signed limited editions of just 200. More importantly, it bodes extremely well for the future of genre writing in the UK, as well as the health of the independent presses. At just £3.00 apiece, this represents a very high quality bargain – and I would venture to say that you should miss them (and future releases) at your peril. So what are you waiting for?

‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ by Mark Valentine

21 09 2010

'A Revelation of Cormorants' by Mark Valentine, 16pp, Nightjar Press, ISBN: 978-1-907341-05-2, £3.00

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Fiction in the short form, in the mainstream at least, has of recent times seen very lean returns – a state of affairs that this reviewer finds somewhat of a mystery. Apparently, according to the big publishing houses, short story collections just aren’t profitable: novels are the thing. However, there’s one area where the short form is very much alive and kicking, and which is where I rediscovered my love of this type of fiction – the independent press. Presses such as Ash-Tree, PS Publishing, and Gray Friar, to name just a few, regularly put out quality books of collections and anthologies, by writers who understand the inherent advantage of the shorter story over the novel. Telling a tale in less than 5000 words, for instance, takes skill and art; unnecessary fluffing out is completely anathema and compactness is absolutely paramount.

Manchester’s Nightjar Press specialises in publishing short stories, but in an even more condensed and concise form still – the chapbook. Nicholas Royle and John Oakey, publisher and designer at Nightjar respectively, issue superb quality, single story pamphlets (for want of a better word), and amounting to less than 20 pages in length. This is my first encounter with their books, and I have to say I am highly impressed.

Mystery and a hidden yearning are at the heart of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, one of the latest Nightjar releases. William Utter has isolated himself in Galloway, after being commissioned to compile a book of pithy and apposite quotations concerning the myths, legends and literature surrounding the native birds of Britain. Indeed, the very place where he has sequestered himself, in a little whitewashed cottage on the coast, is itself haunted by those most inscrutable of sea-birds, cormorants. While engaged in his (faux) literary endeavours, he decides to head off to the shore to watch the sea-birds in their natural environment, at the suggestion of the cottage’s caretaker.

It may only be a short tale, but even within its eleven pages of story there are meditations on time and nature, and how the cormorants themselves appear to embody the deeper mysteries to be found there and in nature itself. It’s a journey of discovery, of revelation at the very point of crisis, and along the way explores the relationships between natural, geologic timelessness and the finite culture of mankind (as represented through the written word, spanning the lost scripts of ancient civilisations, and right on up to his own collating of the quotes of literary worthies). The tale itself is timeless, its only grounding being the location, and even then there’s no specificity as to where the action is unfurling. Neither do you get any sense of when it all takes place, although, for whatever reason, I kept imagining sometime from early to mid-twentieth century, mainly I think because there was a certain hint of an archaic timelessness threading itself through the language (entirely in keeping with the nature of the story). The tension between the meditations on the time that nature experiences and the timelessness of the story drives it along.

The language of the story is full of references to birds and flight, a symbol perhaps of an unacknowledged yearning to be free. Utter is a compiler, not a writer; a gatherer-together of other people’s insights. That’s a restriction right there; maybe there’s a part of him that wishes otherwise. Going to watch the cormorants dipping and diving over the sea is almost a declaration of independence from the confines of the cottage. It’s that action that marks the beginning of the journey for our erstwhile compiler/narrator, in both a physical and metaphysical sense. There are also constant allusions to the written word (not surprising, given Utter’s chosen profession), tied in to concepts of both the unimaginably long epochs of geological timescales and the relatively shorter ones of mankind’s impact on the world. A deeper thread runs through even this: the idea that nature is itself still an inscrutable mystery despite all our investigation of the world and its phenomena. The cormorant itself is symbolic of that; its black feathers concealing a malachite green tint on its body covering (only seen in certain lights), and its eyes being deeply and unreadably black, almost void-like. Perhaps, then, it’s only at the end, when the narrator is facing death and danger, that the mystery allows itself to be unfolded.

All this exploration of deep themes and ideas, crammed into just eleven pages of tale. THAT’S the art of the short story writer. Mark Valentine manages to condense quite broad and, in some ways, complex, concepts in just that space. Moreover, these are exposited as subtle subtexts, rather than overt ruminations. The ideas contained herein tickle the mind as you’re reading it and automatically trip convoys of thoughts. It almost invites the reader to meditate on what’s been written. There’s no dense questioning, just finely-wrought prose.

This, in other words, is writing of the highest order and all wrapped in a beautifully designed and executed production.