God of the Pigeons
 by Jay Merill

Salt Publishing
2010, Paperback

"She has a love of this mysterious city where things can be happening right next to you yet are still unknown by you. Living in a city is like being on a far off island, Azi thinks. Thousands of islands all cut off by gullies, yet all belonging to one another."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

Jay Merill writes about lost characters, hidden architectures and the secret spaces inbetween. The collection’s title story God of the Pigeons tells of Azi and Rob moving into a flat together, an island of togetherness among high city tenements. However, their sanctuary is destroyed the morning they hear a scuffling from behind their boarded-up fireplace and discover the corner of a wing poking through the gap. Yet the story goes beyond Rob and Azi, who eventually flee their eyrie to start a new life in the country, to have a real and appreciable impact on the reader. After reading this, I too was "bothered by the tunnel of space within the chimney. An invisible room….nothing seems solid." Merrill gives you a new way of seeing the world – rooms behind rooms where walls are just lines around space – one that is difficult to unsee.

Beauty Queens is based on the kind of photo we’ve all seen or think we have: "Three beauty queens in the bandstand: Candy, Dierdre and Shereen. Here they sit at the centre of everything, in hot summer sunshine." Did we ever wonder what those plastic posing women were thinking as they posed smiling, always smiling? For a static piece – three women stand waiting for a photographer who never arrives – the story has a terrible, vital energy, propelled by the urgent intersection of three different lives that touch for one moment before flying away from one another forever. Coupled with that energy is the unbearable, Beckettian sadness of a photo that is never taken, three women in swimsuits who smile over their shivers as the wind picks up and people leave the ordinary Midlands fair. It has the very taste of transience, of memory that fades and bright youthful beauty that decays.

The Deus ex Machina Bird was a particular favourite of mine. Deft and sly, with an original conceit and brilliant title, it felt like a play script turned inside out. Although there was both direct speech and action, this story was dominated by subtext: the subtle gradations of meaning behind the smallest gesture all dissected and carefully laid out. In other words, it shows a little and then tells everything. It shouldn’t work but it does and quite brilliantly too, due to a combination of scalpel-sharp observations and compelling characterisation, primarily Penny, who:
"…likes to have people around, to make up the numbers, fill up the empty space and give her the feeling something is happening. Anyway, she must always be the nucleus, and how could she be a nucleus without accretions? But most of all, these people are the equivalent of the lights she has to keep on in her flat at night so that she won’t have to think of any of the bad things."
Penny is a deliciously dark contradiction – despite a clear-sighted self-awareness of herself in the present moment, she is unable to face up to "the taste of her own past rejection, the rank-blood flavour of it". Instead she forges onwards, restaging her hurt over and over again with different players, a show that must always go on.

There’s no doubt that many Merill’s stories are difficult reads and a few did not quite take off for me. Despite the kinetic subject, Racetrack did not have quite enough energy to tear itself free of the density, stream of consciousness. Similarly, Making Dracula did not, to my mind, quite pull off the trick of pushing an original new perspective against a title loaded with expectations (in contrast to the much more successful Batman). However, patience is rewarded: Mimosa, House of Dream and Medusa were both rich and strange on an initially reading, their meaning deepening and widening on a reread. The unsettling Batman also gained in power from being read a second and third time, the strange blend of comic book imagery and religious iconography finally resolving into something striking and utterly new.

Like the surfaces that her stories burrow beneath, Merill is challenging and not straightforward. But the reward is a new perspective on a world, a different way of looking at something you see every day. Bargain.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson’s short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others. She has, finally, completed her novel, The Examined Life and is changing forms to work on a radio play about Polish history, absent fathers and drinking coffee with the devil.

Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"

Deborah Sheldon "All the Little Things That We Lose"

Alta Ifland "Elegy for a Fabulous World"

Paul Magrs "Twelve Stories"
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Jay Merill ’s first short story collection Astral Bodies was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. She lives in central London and is the recipient of an Arts Council England Award allowing her to devote more time to writing.

Read an interview with Jay Merill