Last year, Julia Armfield won the White Review Short Story Prize with ‘The Great Awake’, an unnerving tale about insomnia incarnate. The prize has never gone amiss; previous winners include Sophie Mackintosh, who went on to be Booker-longlisted for The Water Cure, and Co Westmeath author Nicole Flattery, whose debut collection Show Them a Good Time is a dark, disorderly joy.
In Salt Slow, Armfield’s own debut, ‘The Great Awake’ isn’t the best story of the nine; it might not even be in the top three. These are thrillingly black-hearted tales, fantasies of girls who rewire their world through visceral transformation. The events take place in cities and flats like the ones you know, except that behind these doors, men are being turned to stone or torn apart by women’s hands – or assembled from bones that the women exhume by night.
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Desire is the motive force in Armfield’s stories, and its effects take bodily form: it’s a slow, febrile thing that leads girls to metamorphose into killers, monsters and savage birds.
Armfield’s prose has a stupefied ease. It glides along so stylishly, incurious about the blood intermittently spilling across its palms. Many of the sentences arrive at a single freakish detail that’s suddenly, but mildly, expressed. In ‘Formerly Feral’, for instance, the narrator’s bereaved father has married again: “My Father’s marriage upset the equilibrium – loosened the surety of my grip. My Stepmother, as I was requested to address her, unlocked windows, plugged mouse holes with wire mesh and foam insulation. The house opened around her the way you crack a chest cavity, the ribs of it, the unnatural gape.”
The crack would be more assimilable if it came with a lurch, but Armfield is smarter than that: the tone is smooth, even comfortable. (Gradually, seamlessly, the narrator begins to behave like her new stepsister, who is a wolf). Not every sentence is perfect, and some passages tend to the overwrought. But Armfield’s skill is clear, by reflection, in her dialogue: lively and tense, its plausibility plays eerily against the narration either side. Armfield is sweet, too, on a few choice words, like “poltergeist” and “skin”. Their recurrence lends the stories a closeness, as if these were nightmares you’d had on different occasions. The atmosphere gives Salt Slow its cohesive shape.
That’s a compelling effect for a collection, but while you’re inside each story, the connections you spot to its siblings – whether in mood or expression – aren’t necessarily so welcome then and there. To make comparisons is to dissipate the specificity of each piece, the live moment of dread.
As with Lynchian cinema, the effect of Salt Slow lies as much in its aftermath. Once you’ve closed the book, you’re left with a peculiar taste. Many of the stories give the impression that they’ve ended one sentence short, though they haven’t, and they’d be poorer if they had; that phantom sentence would have been a psychological anchor, a kind of resolution that would tell you how anyone besides you is feeling. This is never given. So, “Cassandra After” ends: “In the morning, I told the woman messaging me on the dating site that I couldn’t talk to her just yet; I was sweeping the bones of a girl I had loved off the kitchen floor.” White space follows below.
The absence or abeyance of men is the pointedly queer side of Salt Slow; that women prefer women here is a fact hardly worth a remark. The violence of women against men is the way of Armfield’s Gothic world, where the settings are nameless and so (you worry) the rending of flesh might be happening down your road.
The core of any nightmare is its total momentary plausibility; few of these stories relinquish that darkling grip. As the pizza boy is beckoned indoors at the end of ‘The Collectables’, no reader will think for a minute that he’s being led up to bed.
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