by Janice Galloway
Vintage 2009, Paperback
Janice Galloway was born in Ayrshire in 1955 where she worked as a teacher for ten years. Her first novel, The Trick is to keep Breathing was published in 1990 won the MIND/Allan Lane Book of the Year. Blood, a short story collection, was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize, People's Prize and Satire Award. Her second novel, Foreign Parts, won the McVitie's Prize in 1994. Her story-collection, Where you find it, published in 1996, was followed by a series of collaborative installation texts for sculptor Anne Bevan. Her play, Fall, was performed in Edinburgh and Paris in 1998. Her third novel, Clara,
based on the tempestuous life of pianist Clara Wieck Schumann, was
published in 1998 and won Saltire Book of the Year. Her new book, This is not about me, won of the Scottish Mortgage Trust Book of the Year (non-fiction) 2009.
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"She may not speak much but she
knows EVERY WORD YOU SAY. Her mother said that. Kind of thing you say
about spaniels. Biddable things. Pets. They sentimentalise. It's easier
than looking, REALLY LOOKING, seeing what there is to see."
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
I finished this powerful book, which collects together all the forty-two stories
from both of Janice Galloway's published collections, I felt as though
these were stories unlike any I had ever read before. Of course, my
task as a reviewer was then to re-read the book and try and explain
The first thing is the layout of Galloway's stories, many of which are very short, only a few pages.
She doesn't use any
speechmarks, and is not that keen on paragraph breaks, inserting blank
lines - white space - instead. White space is stronger than a paragraph
break, and I believe it's done to keep the reader from falling into
some kind of comfortable space. Active reading is what's called for
What jumps out is Galloway's use of CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, something I had never seen in a
short story before. Yes, you may feel that the story is shouting at
you, but I think this is the point. The quote above is taken from the
story Someone Had To, and
before you even begin to read the story, words and phrases jump out:
EVERY WORD YOU SAY
EVERY WORD YOU SAY
THANK YOU FOR TAKING ME WITH YOU UNCLE FRANK
as if they are a
hint of the story to come, or their own mini-story, but this is not
gratuitous. The feeling of being shouted at adds another sensation to
Galloway's prose, it engages all your senses, including hearing. It's
something utterly unique. She uses Scottish dialect, spelling words the
way they would sound, such as "mibby" for "maybe", which gives these
stories a strong sense of place.
The next point is that where many authors cast
their net far and
wide and write stories set in many locations - be they cities,
countries or other planets - Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she
takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.
For example, here is
an extract from Where You Find It,
a two-page story about a kiss:
He prises you apart like you're in a dentist's chair and you know
you're being kissed...You can feel the wet chord that keeps his tongue
on stretching, pulling up from the soft veiny mass on the floor of his
mouth, tightening to its limit like it might uproot. That chord is in
there all the time, folded up like a fin or a stray slice of tissue
left on a butcher's tray.
The story continues in this vein (excuse the pun) which is both
slightly gruesome but also utterly compelling. The dissection of the
kissing process. In another story, Galloway takes something as "ordinary" as a visit to
the hairdresser's and imbues it with such menace, such otherworldliness:
On the left, the slatted muzzles of strung-up dryers grunt soundlessly
behind two copper-coloured cans of spray. Net on a wire rope hides the
misted window. On the right, four women ranged along the wallpaper
stripes, frying. Under their electric drying hoods, wisps of lilac and
silver stray down, making their faces pucker.Galloway forces you to look at everything with new eyes.
the butcher (that one is particularly gruesome!) She rarely opens a
story such that you are instantly aware of where
you are, who this is, what's going on. She makes you keep turning the
pages to find out, and you want to. You can't stop. Very often her
titles provide vital information for the reader, both about what the
story is "about" and how to read it, titles such as bisex and babysitting. There are stories that are told quite "straight" and there are those that are more dreamlike, more disturbing.
Most of these stories are not an easy read; I don't imagine
they are supposed to be a cheering
experience. There are several of the later stories that left me deeply
shaken. But there are moments of unexpected beauty (the sun coming out
in after the rain), love
and humour, even in a story about an elderly couple planning
volume of collected stories also gives a reader the chance to see how a
writer has shifted, changed, over the years. Noticeable immediately is
that all the titles of the second set of stories are lower case - and I
don't think this is trivial, given Galloway's penchant for capital
letters. This is an indication of different rules at play, or no rules
at all. This is saying: Don't take anything for granted.
Also, characters from earlier stories do return, and there is a feeling
that many of these stories are set in the same place, not a fixed and
existing city, but there is a sense of some kind of community here,
some continuity between stories.
The earlier stories are very, very good, but many of the later ones are
astonishing, clearly the work of a confident writer who has no
compunction about making the reader work very hard. It is worth it. It
is most definitely worth it.