by Annie Clarkson
is a novel in stories, a connected collection of 13 stories about the
Dax family that spans from 1974 to 2004.
We first meet Ali in 1974 at
the end of a painful relationship, and at the point where she meets
Bill who will become her husband for 26 years. Each story takes a
different family perspective. 1977:
is Bill and Ali's story of a holiday they have early in their
Man in Space is
Frank's story. He is Ali's brother, and this is the
only story he tells in the book, even though he is deeply felt in other
stories. Ali and Bill have two children who both tell stories.
feels like a novel, in the sense that the same characters inhabit the
stories, there are threads that run between stories, connections that
we recognise, and our knowledge from earlier stories increases our
awareness and enjoyment of later ones. It is a book to be read
sequentially, and not pick out stories at random. On the other hand,
there is not one particular main story that arcs through the book.
These stories can stand alone, there is a narrative arc, and a pleasing
satisfaction in each individual story. This is the real strength of Tender;
it has the benefits of a wonderful novel, as well as the joy of reading
a collection of short stories.
One particularly strong
story is 1995:
There's a Hole in Everything.
This story is about Rosa, Ali and Bill's genius thirteen year
old daughter. Her experiences are captured with such precision,
tenderness and aching authenticity. She remembers going to the park
with Uncle Frank: "We'd lie on our backs and watch
the clouds moving and bumping into each other. I'd say that
one looks like a fat man swimming, and he'd say, that one
looks like a piano that's fallen into a tree."
She bunks school with her almost imaginary friend: "Shelley chugs cider
from her coke can. I pick up a lipstick.
Damson blush, glossy, waterproof, twelve-hour life, and drop it into my
pocket." She struggles to cope with a bully in school: "She came up
with the WE LOVE ROSA badges, and began the
campaign about my so-called body odour." The small details in
this story create a growing tension, a quietness that attaches it to
the reader, so that by the end, all the emotion in the story is tugging
hard at us.
This seems to be one of Mark Illis' talents as a writer;
capturing the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such
precision that we carry them with us way after we finish reading.
The collection explores
intimate space: the moments when a husband and wife each consider an
affair; the jealousy of a brother who promises to hate his sister
forever; the absence after a brother/uncle has committed suicide; the
sense of getting older and dreams from younger days being lost; a child
feeling they are a disappointment to his parents; a parent not being
able to reach out and help the daughter they know is struggling.
It is tender, funny,
startling, sad, and resonates with truth. There are many things to love
about this book. The way each chapter/story starts with such
originality: "Liz had armpit stubble, moles, a BCG scar and her labia
thick and uneven like misshapen ears." Beautiful description: "It
looked like Ali was erecting cities around the kitchen,
compact cities with curved walls and uneven skylines."
The depiction of such subtle moments within relationships: "You know
what I feel. I feel we've reached a
point." That was it, it sounded like half a sentence.
"We've reached a point." And then there are the gently echoing phrases
and images that haunt the
prose and journey between stories: the phrase "I'll
be leaving", escape artistes, the story of how Ali and Bill
met, objects from their home, people asking "Are you
By the end of the book, I
was left wondering whether these characters would be alright, whether
any of us are ever alright, and decided that these were exactly the
right questions to ask, that I had found something achingly true within
Read an excerpt
from this collection on SaltPublishing.com
Clarkson is a poet and short story writer
Manchester, UK. Her first chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands
by Shadow Train Books in 2007.
Illis writes novels, short stories,
and TV drama. He is the author of three novels, A Chinese Summer, The Alchemist, The Feather Report
recently, this collection of short stories. He lives in West Yorkshire,
with his wife and two children
with Mark Illis
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Publisher's Website: Salt Publishing
Bookseller: The Bookcase
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