Reading the Come let Us stories is like stepping into an hallucinogenic dream. A woman gives birth to geometric shapes in Love Silk Food. In Pals, there are two schoolfriends, one of whom coincidentally has no head. Echo begins with the line: ‘The young man dies like flower’ and is a story, told staccato, of pain, of a restrained, loving anger, as much a psalm as a story.
In Breathing, a dead wife comes back to life, re-entering her husband’s life by the simple expedient of ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night. In Art, For Fuck’s Sake an artistic collaboration takes on multiple dimensions. Phone Call To A London Rape Crisis Centre voices a desperately sad call from someone who is being abused; that call ends with the plangent, ‘We do have fun. / We do.’ Velvet Man features a ghost ‘with clean, well-shaped fingernails’, who shows hope of a better life to a lonely, divorced woman. The brilliant, The Woman Who Lives In a Restaurant maps how people are weird but can reach vital, love-affirming arrangements around each other’s idiosyncrasies – a paean to acceptance and to love, however strange. There’s more.
Mrs Neecy Brown, centre-stages a woman, drained by a faithless husband and needy, grown daughters. It’s a narrative that produces at its end three simultaneous, contradictory feelings: a vicarious, bemused cynicism – at the pious woman suddenly cast in a wanton shadow; a surge of pathos – aching for poor Mrs Brown to get some of the love she deserves; and a more distant, reflective vibe – on the strange twists life can take and how there is a piece of Mrs Brown in us all, the optimism of that thought.
There’s more. Drag stars a young woman who at the story’s beginning feels more male than female and is writing a thesis on advertising. She picks up Michael in a Soho porn shop. They have sex and Jo insists Michael fucks her as if Jo were male not female. There are three sections to this story, each divided by a centred asterix – a favourite marking device of LR’s to denote shifts in time and space. The story becomes Pinter-esque in its working through the personas. We see the duo again. In the second section, Jo / Josephine is masturbated to orgasm by Michael as she closes a business deal in a restaurant. Jump cut to seven years later and there’s a wedding. Jo/Josephine dons a Cinderella-like wedding dress and, prior to the ceremony the couple make love. ‘We have never made love before,’ Jo tells him. This comes across not as judgemental or sonorous, but as a distinction observed. So another sexual identity is introduced, another aspect of Jo’s identity opens up. At the end of the story she runs off, abandoning, it feels like, all three identities – a defiance of conventional romance but also a refusal to be set down as one type, one way of being. I can imagine this story being filmed. It would work well. Though I doubt any Renee Zellweger – Hugh Grant type shctick would do it justice.
My favourite story is Roll It. Set in Kingston, it begins with the line, ’The woman has fifteen minutes before she dies on the catwalk.’ I loved the deft weaving of Caribbean folkloric references (to the White Witch of Rose Hall, to the Rolling Calf myth etc). By turns, mysterious sweltering, shocking, macabre and phantasmagorical, the story trembles with ambiguous meaning. ‘Before she dies’ has many reverberations: the catwalk show theme is vampiric and there is lots of blood around, so it sounds metaphorical, not literal. And yet. As an attention grabber, it’s a brilliant first line and the rest of the story charges on in a blaze of righteous indignation, weary journalism, with the promise of redemption signalled by the transcendence metaphor allows. The main character is fashion designer, Parker Jones’s favourite model. Tellingly, she is never given a name. She’s beautiful and clever. She’s also dyslexic. She is vibrantly alive and wholly exploited by fashion industry celebrity, Parker (the story fore-shadows the 2017 furore that began around Weinstein and Hollywood). The triply horrific ending involves the macabre staging of Parker’s ghoul-themed catwalk parade, the heart-wringing horror of the young woman’s self-immolation and the moral horror of Parker’s indifference to the model’s fate, instead ‘swearing for his precious dress.’ Roll It shows beauty without warmth. It’s a mercilessly beautiful story.
I could go on. The stories flik-flak between Kingston and London. Other stories include a woman recovering from bariatric surgery…and… and… I now realise that reviewing short story collections is tricky. Nobody wants a reviewer to plough through every story in the collection offering a morsel from each one. So, stepping back for the larger picture…
LR’s collection blends realism with a fabulous and at times astringent surrealism. She uses sharp, pithy, often simile-based images (“face like a streamed pudding.” “Hands a wedge of flesh”) that tend to cue up the transition from the real to the surreal. While the tones can be surreal, the stories are highly individuated, and often nightmary/dreamy. Taken together, the stories feel like an assertion of the richness of ordinary people’s internal lives, a richness that is often in stark contrast with their material struggles and with the way others’ see them. JR is a fabulously inventive, egalitarian writer.
Ursula Le Guin, while reviewing another collection of short stories (by M John Harrison, called, You Should Come With Me Now), had this to say about surrealism in stories: “surrealism is the most cerebral and most cynical of genres, declaring and exhibiting the falsity of reason, the meaninglessness of meaning; it flaunts its courage in breaking the compact, the collusion, on which fiction depends. But such brave defiance runs the fatal risk of boring the reader.” Do we get bored by Come Let Us Sing Anyway? No. Why not? The stories may be edged by and pricked with surrealism, but this is never at the expense of affect, of emotion; and they are grounded in a storyteller’s commitment to causality: we care for her characters and we follow them devotedly, praying they have good outcomes, even if those prayers are often dashed.
I went to Milan once and ordered spag bol at an Italian restaurant – after years of eating spag bol out of cans and then, as I got flush enough to leave behind the cans, at ‘Italian’ restaurant in Manchester, UK, So. Milan. I thought, I’m finally going to get the real thing. 35 Euros worth, no less. So. The waiter brought a plate the size of a cat’s saucer on which were arranged three short strands of spaghetti, and a dollop of minced meat over which had been poured and a spoonful of red sauce. I mean, it tasted fine, but I was hungry! Similarly, I’ve found, when I read short story collections, I get annoyed if they start with longer stories and then I encounter very short pieces among them – by which I mean stories that take up only one or two pages (unless the whole book is like that, in which case that’s fine because it’s flash fiction). LR writes sumptuous longer short stories. I felt the very short ones should be in a different book. It had me musing who decides what goes into a short story collection (and the ordering of the pieces) – the editor or the author?
Full disclosure: I met Leone Ross in 2017 while on a writers’ visit to Spain. As far as I can recall, she did not buy me any drinks.