EVENT REVIEW: Short Stories, with Carys Davies, Crista Ermiya and Stuart Evers

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Saturday 17 October 2015
Palace Green Library

Review by Jazmine Linklater

There’s always something magical about fiction readings, and it was no different on Saturday in Palace Green Library in Durham. For this year’s Durham Book Festival we were treated to readings from three short story writers: Carys Davies, Crista Ermiya and Stuart Evers.

Carys Davies was recently awarded the Frank O’Connor international short story prize for her second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike. She smiled broadly, warning us that she might be ‘cheating everybody’ by reading only half a story. Time, unfortunately, just wouldn’t allow more. Her voice had a velvety texture, her vowels clipped in an almost traditional way and softened by ever so slightly lispsy ‘s’s. The opening lines of The Travellers took us from Birmingham all the way to Siberia, where Davies’ protagonist had opened a guest house. Her only member of staff, Piotr (which Davies pronounced with a wonderful Britishness), is an introverted and evasive character. As the story unfolded into its evening, a stranger arrived at the inn on a sledge drawn through the snow by a horse. Everything about this story made me think of Chekhov – obviously the setting and the snow, but also Davies’ concise yet surprising use of language. Just as the mystery of the tale began gathering pace, we were, as forewarned, left on a serious cliff hanger. This was simultaneously an annoying and smart move; anyone who hadn’t read the collection yet would certainly be buying a copy after the reading.

The second story we heard couldn’t be more different than Davies’. Crista Ermiya moved to the front of the stage, bashful in telling us that she’s “not very good at introductions, so I’m just going to read the story.” From her collection, The Weather in Kansas, Ermiya read a delightful piece titled On Skar and Matters Pertaining. The story details the history of the inhabitants of the isle of Skar and their bizarre idiosyncrasies, in the matter-of-fact register of ‘the Academy’. The report style telling of this imagined universe is reminiscent of works by Jorge Luis Borges, who also built whole universes and histories into short, fictionalised, article-style pieces. Ermiya’s islanders, through all their strangeness, are vessels through which a more profound reflection on the state of humanity is made possible.

Stuart Evers was last to read, selecting Lakelands from his new collection, Your Father Sends His Love. Again, the contrast between the stylistic nature of this piece and the previous one was quite startling. His prose is poetic, bursting with imagery and metaphors that came as a surprise after Ermiya’s restrained language. Lakelands opens with a young boy photographing and videoing the building site his father works on. He films and rewatches clips of ‘the suggestion of houses’, before a woman approaches him. The boy tells us this woman has the look of the women his father has let down in the past. While the two prior stories were both skilled and enticing, this was the first moment in the event that I felt truly overwhelming emotion, and I can’t even explain where this sadness came from. There was a troubling notion that this father, with his ‘oil cloth face, age and weather blessed’ is stuck between longing for the past while dreaming of a future that, for some reason, I didn’t feel optimistic about. Again, however, time only permitted half the story, and we were left hanging over the edge of another cliff.

The Short Stories event was a lovely way to open the final day of this year’s Durham Book Festival, taking us on journeys we hadn’t expected. Many audience members were introduced to some exciting writers we hadn’t come across before and it will be a pleasure to discover more of their work.

Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.