The Real Louise
and Other Stories
 by Ailsa Cox

Headland Publications 2009, Paperback
First collection

Ailsa Cox is a fiction writer and critic, with a special interest in the short story genre. Her other books are Writing Short Stories (Routledge), and Alice Munro (Northcote House). Her fiction has been included in magazines and anthologies, including The Virago Book of Love and Loss, Metropolitan, London Magazine, Manchester Stories 3 (Comma Press), and Transmission.

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"So what makes me think I’m going to find Michael, with his superhero looks, leaning over a balcony ready to fly, no tricks, no strings, no coke, no heroin. I carry chalk with me to write in the pissy stairwells: I’M LOOKING FOR YOU MICHAEL. That way I can tell where I’ve already been."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

The Real Louise and Other Stories, is an eclectic collection. Despite many stories being set in Manchester and Liverpool in the UK, despite most of them being concerned with relationships, there are many voices, narratives and types of stories all gathered together. Long stories, short short stories, child voices, inner voices, stories that span a lifetime or five minutes.

Her Old Self Again, a story of a bitter old woman who suffers a sudden onset of dementia, but her identity is brought into question when a researcher says she is the conspirator to an adulterous murder when she was young. Be a Good Girl is a vivid short short about a girl who isn’t allowed to go to the toilet when she visits her relatives. The Memory Room is set in a future where you can erase memories of films you have already seen.

Ailsa Cox writes with precision, in a way that illuminates small details of people’s lives. For example, these lines from Into the Sun: "Paul was Jessie’s best friend. They were mates. They knew each other in the dark." We learn so much from short sentences, brief information. Characters are distinct and familiar. We share their hopes, their lies and contradictions, their imaginations, their truths. Mostly they are sad, tender, frightening (in an ordinary everyday way). We observe relationships that are so broken down that the only way a husband can communicate with the wife he shares a house with is to post a letter, only to find it is returned with "not known at this address" written on the envelope. These are stories which made me ache they felt so "real".

Biting Point
is about a woman trying to learn to drive, while contending with her own anxious and intrusive thoughts. Her own inner voice battles with memories of things her mother and father have both said, and her inner-noise becomes so loud it's impossible to concentrate. Into the Sun is another fragmentary narrative where multiple voices/thoughts/memories interrupt each other: radio news from Baghdad cut up with Jessie's thoughts, Wilfred Owen, conversation and description of what is happening now. The style replicates a jumbled mind, a busy mind without much focus. It makes sense because of the juxtapositions in the narrative and connections we make as readers:
"There have been no declarations, no steps closer to war. You just wake up and it’s happening like middle age, like the death of love, as if it was always like this."
This story is about all of these things. The repetition in this story is like guns or a disturbed mind returning to the same point over and over trying to make sense of it.

Another pleasure from this collection for me was the many stories set in Manchester. There is something exciting about reading short stories about places we know well. Stories like, No Problemo where Max and his mum's new boyfriend lose each other in the Arndale Centre; the brilliant Just like Robert de Niro set in the old Hulme before the Crescents were knocked down; and Story Swap with its movement through Manchester from Deansgate down to Cine City in Withington (also no longer there) and their shared observations of people inhabiting the city. The geography is specific, pinning down the social authenticity of the stories, and helping a reader like me (very familiar with Manchester) understand that even though Just like Robert de Niro is a sad almost bleak story observing loss and decline within an area and its relationships, hope exists in the knowledge that outside of the story, the Crescents were eventually knocked down.

Ailsa Cox also has a wonderful way with "voice". Sex Etc for example, is a wonderful first person narrative about a lad with dyslexia (maybe) or literacy issues. His spelling is appalling  - "please" for "police" for example, -  but he has a brilliant outlook, funny, and very likeable: "If you think I’ve got one of those syndromes the dog who barked or something that’s not what I’m saying." I found it touching, and the voice was perfect, perhaps some might find it gimmicky, but for me it was the contrary.

This collection is like the story Making it Happen, - it is about everything and nothing – a divorce, wedding, a relationship breaking down and a new relationship, character, getting to know people and not knowing them, being together and alone. It reads beautifully, seamlessly, but is difficult to describe. It covers decades and many different kinds of relationships - between grandmothers, mothers and daughters, between lovers or ex-lovers.

Yes, there were a few stories that I was less interested in or didn’t quite "get": I must have missed the point in Twentieth Frame; The Memory Room has a brilliant sci-fi premise but didn’t seem fully realized; and November was too fragmentary for me to give it emotional resonance. But, there are seventeen stories in this collection, and I found plenty more that said YES to me.

Read a story from this collection on East of the Web

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone (Flax Books), Transmission, Ouroboros Review, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, Cake, and Pank magazine. .

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

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