Starlings
 by Erinna Mettler

Revenge Ink
2011
First Collection







"Upstairs in her flat, May watches the starlings flit around the Pier. She loves these birds in particular, probably because they’re not here for long. They stay for a few weeks brightening the skies and then they’re off to wherever they go to live their exciting foreign lives. Nightly she watches their dance from her window, she thinks it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen and her heart is warmed by their beauty…She is amazed that there are still things in the world to make her smile. "


Reviewed by A J Kirby

Well written and engaging, Erinna Mettler’s Starlings is a daisy-chain novel comprising twenty-one interlinked short fictions which together tell the story of Brighton, and a cross-section of its inhabitants. The narrative is non-linear and fragmented. It circles, dips, soars like a flock of starlings in flight. This is a novel in episodes, in scenes, which are not always causally connected, but in which meaning is multi-layered, so that the whole can become more than the sum of its parts.

It’s writing la mode, and bears comparison with Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad which was reviewed in last month’s The Short Review.

So I suppose I’d better tackle the obvious question head-on. Mettler’s insistence that this is a daisy-chain novel (allied with the fact there is no table of contents at the front as in most short fiction collections) does beg the question as to whether this should be reviewed as short fiction at all, but because of the non-chronological structure of the text, and the diverse cast of characters, the book certainly passes the dip test. Most, but not all of the stories do stand alone, and the reader has the opportunity to dip in and out of the text where they may please and appreciate the quality of the writing. On the other hand, a real drawback of this writing style, and the large cast list which Mettler introduces us to, is the fact that if the reader is reading the text cover to cover, they are often obliged to flick back between the stories and pages to remember who’s who and how everyone’s linked. What I would say is that this is clearly the kind of book which requires to be read twice, to enjoy the ingenuity of how the characters and stories interlace and knot and twist around each other.

Indeed, Mettler presents us with two opposite metaphors for the book’s overarching structure within the stories themselves. This from the titular Starlings:
As her gaze follows the dip and bail of the tiny birds from the land to the sea and back again, she notices the children’s playground on the front below her window… It’s the two sandpits that catch her eye, each has a pattern of swirls and lines traced over it, deep furrows circle around from one end to the next, creating dark lines out of shadows and bright hills out of orange light… Someone took the time to make these beautiful patterns and now the only ones who can see them are May and the birds, the passers-by on street level wouldn’t know they were there, but the starlings would.

And this rather less confident image from The Victorian Way with Death:
Were cobwebs the only things on earth more substantial in shadow than as themselves? It swung in the draught from the eaves, an ethereal circus trapeze high in the roof, joining another web, then parting again in the corner. Their dance made David sad; the shadows of discarded webs. Once intricate and purposeful – a unique and complex trap for prey – now they were a fragmented and useless cluster of threads, defined only by the way they blocked out the light.
Further to completing my second reading of Starlings, I’m certain Mettler’s weavings are substantial. Within the pages, there are stories of love and lost love, obsession and betrayal. There are ghost stories, gang war stories, family stories. Some of the stories tug on the heart-strings, others make the reader decidedly uncomfortable. At times, Mettler has a wickedly dry sense of humour. Often, laughs sneak up on the reader, though at others, it is more end of the pier than that, as evidenced in Dentistry, in which the complicated procedure to extract a tooth from Giuseppe’s mouth becomes a very close stand in for the sex act itself; there is much writhing, much closeness of bodies, and an ending which involves Giuseppe being passed a cup of blue mouth rinse which he is unsure whether to "spit or swallow," and in the some of the story titles. Interlewd is one example. But my award for the best short story title I’ve read this year must go to Vaginas of Hurstpierpoint. And because of Mettler’s structural trapeze act, the text itself takes on epic proportions.

Throughout it all, the main character, the axis upon which all of the other characters turn, is the city of Brighton. We read this and feel as though we know Brighton intimately, just as we get to know Baltimore inside and out in The Wire. Mettler’s Brighton is written with love, but with no little social insight. Here, she offers a bird’s eye view of Brighton, of its landmarks and people. It is at once, incredibly localised writing, but at the same time, very universal writing. And she references real events; the fire on the pier and, in particular, the events of one infamous Whitsun bank holiday, 1964. In Targets, the conflict is as much between father and son, an inter- generational, semi-Oedipal tension, as it is between the mods and the rockers. Here, the seafront clashes of the two gangs bear obvious parallels with Quadrophenia, but it also felt very apt, reading this in the wake of the rioting in London, Birmingham and Manchester in August.

Mettler presents the reader with a real menagerie of Brighton folk. We meet an aging transsexual, a typically forthright taxi driver, a corrupt policeman filled with all the bitterness and spite of a David Peace character. Loners play a big part in the story. Outcasts, the dispossessed, the divorced, the abandoned, the abused. Alcoholics, divorcees, arsonists, drug dealers, paedophiles; those who’ve fallen through the cracks. Those born into the wrong body or the wrong time. Starlings is an issue-driven text informed by disparate communal voices turning on the conflicts between generations, sexes and families.

There are common themes which bind the stories together. "Looking", ways of seeing, how we encounter the world, are clearly important to this author. Starlings is a very visual text. Cinematic. Mettler has a background in film and this comes through very strongly in the text. Here, the characters tread the fine line between desire and temptation, lust and love. In The View to the West Pier, Andy Watson, a conflicted paedophile released from prison "broken and disconnected", "stands at his window on the twelfth floor of Ocean Heights, looking down with birdlike stasis at the beach and the Pier beyond." People either ignore him, or look at him with "unmistakeable certitude – I know what you are." In Pebble-Dashed, Alastair sees the world through the lens of a camera. Trying to line it up on the beach, "he looks long and beaky…craning his neck and bending his shoulders like a wading bird." In Burning Feathers, Barney "viewed the world about him in hyper-real detail, point by point." In Taxi!, Graham sees the world through the windscreen of his cab, and in The Editor, Jerry’s obsession with looking turns him into a virtual stalker. And in the standout piece, Starlings, we’re reminded, "Your eyes never change, May used to say – from birth to death – they remain the windows to your soul."

Epic, unchanging, the human condition is laid bare throughout these stories. Artfully, Mettler picks it apart, examines it, and then builds it back together again from a ruin, into something stronger, more coherent.

Read a story from this collection on Liars League.com


A J Kirby is the author of four novels, Perfect World (TWB Press, 2011), Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009), The Magpie Trap (Youwriteon.com, 2008), and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories,  Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010).
A Js other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus"

Howard Goldowsky (ed) "Masters of Technique"

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 3

Steve Morris "Jumble Tales"
                     
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Erinna Mettler was born in Yeovil but lived in Wakefield West Yorkshire for most of her childhood. She studied Film at the University of Kent before working at the British Film Institute for thirteen years. Erinna left the BFI in 2004 to move to Brighton and raise a family, and, in 2007, just after the birth of her second son, took the certificate of creative writing at Sussex University to give her something to do that wasn't associated with housework or childcare. Most of Starlings was written during the course. She is currently studying for the MA, as well as working on her second novel Pamela's Dream. She was one of the founding members of Rattle Tales.

Read an interview with Erinna Mettler