The Biting Point
 by Catherine Smith

Speechbubble Books 2010
First Collection

"The money is in a pink scented envelope, as always. Theo gives me left-over Bolognese sauce in a Tupperware container; he says it’s too much for one. He takes my hand and kisses my knuckles."

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

You can tell that this collection is worth some attention by the opening paragraph. It is dark and tragic, but not without humour, and it cuts deep into the heart of the book, it is indicative of seriously accomplished writing. "Yesterday I watched Mr. Crawford try to kill himself," Smith begins, and the reading from the offset is compulsive.

In Every Seven Seconds a tenacious boy is given a shocking gift by a man who had been attempting to hang himself in his garage. It's disturbing yet it does not falter, does not stray or lose sight of the narrative, it is cleanly written, with decidedly dirty subject matter. These stories have texture, layers, cleverly worked to effect. Smith does use vulgarity and stark, punchy language, abusive or sexual, sometimes gratuitous. There's no sentimentality often she just lays it down with a silent, "deal with this."

The Kettle sees a quietly grieving woman having to get along in a world inhabited by her dead lover's widow and her own failing marriage. It's believable, you can imagine this happening to someone, and so it is reinforced. Written in second person it hooks and snares, you feel for the woman though you avidly disapprove.

Another secret life is revealed to us in Fridays; a story about a woman's secret job as a dominatrix. Again, there is a lifeless marriage and unsatisfying sex life unfolding beside the casual enjoyment of the side "job." What makes the story shocking is that the man the woman is working for is elderly.
The money is in a pink scented envelope, as always. Theo gives me left-over Bolognese sauce in a Tupperware container; he says it's too much for one. He takes my hand and kisses my knuckles.
There is some tenderness in this story, unlikely tenderness, and some beautiful twists.

One of the most striking stories in the collection is Sow, the story of a morbidly obese but sweet and vulnerable woman. Although the description of the woman is hideous we also feel sorry for her. "She was gigantic- not just fat...She had these eyes that were buried so deep in her face you could hardly see them, and her cheeks sort of… flapped…" In Smith's stories there are no outright heroes, nor outright losers either. You feel empathy it seems in the wrong places; she turns moral dilemmas on their heads. The main character in this story, the narrator, commits a cowardly crime whose repercussions are extreme. You don't know who to feel sorry for.

Finally, The Biting Point takes us into the minds of two characters with very different thoughts and motives. Chloe is a teenage girl learning to drive, and her driving instructor is the object of her affections. Preoccupied with thoughts of winning his affections, her driving is compromised. Her instructor's thoughts are also preoccupied but in a very different way to Chloe's. The hormonal desire of Chloe, and the misunderstanding and conflict that takes place in each character's mind is fascinating. By the end of Chloe's story are we annoyed or are we sympathetic?

None of the characters in this book are wholly likeable, they are all flawed, and nearly all are culpable. Yet we form complex allegiances, and unconscious judgments on each. What do these say about us, as voyeurs? The challenge makes for an exciting and original must-read.

Melissa Lee-Houghton's first collection of poems, A Body Made of You, published by Penned in the Margins and released in Spring 2011, is available for pre-order now.
Melissa's other Short Reviews: Philip Shirley "Oh Don't You Cry For me"

Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

John Saul "As Rivers Flow"

Stephanie Johnson "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others"

Nicholas Royle (ed) "'68: New Stories from Children of the Revolution"

NIk Perring "Not So Perfect"

Tom Vowler "The Method"
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An award winning poet and fiction writer, Catherine Smith teaches creative writing at the University of Sussex and for the Arvon foundation. Her poetry has been shortlisted for The Forward Prize and she is currently working on her next collection.

Read an interview with Catherine Smith