Roll Up for the Arabian Derby
 by Susan Wicks

Bluechrome, 2008
First collection? Yes

Poet and novelist Susan Wicks was born in 1947. She has published five collections of poetry, a short memoir, Driving My Father (1995) and two novels: The Key (1997), the story of a middle-aged woman haunted by the memory of a former lover, and Little Thing (1998).

"Your nipples like berries, mine flat and soft, changing under your fingers. A ribbon of dark film unrolling underfoot, acetic acid, the grain magnifier crashing, its small lens spidering like a windscreen where the stone hit. Five seconds? Ten? Fifteen?"

Reviewed by Diane Becker

Roll Up for the Arabian Derby is the first collection of short fiction by poet and novelist Susan Wicks and like the wooden cut-out camels in the title story, takes the reader for an discomforting ride through sixteen small worlds as diverse as the characters that inhabit them and the random incidents which alter their lives.

Many of the stories are shaped by the dark events that take place off-camera: the death of a brother (in Heavy), a road traffic accident (The First Weekend), the suicide of a colleague (Upstairs). Others are rooted in the everyday but take on a magical or surreal quality over the course of the story; the woman on the bus who spends the journey talking to a ventriloquist’s dummy in Success; the infant (in Baby) with a face “five times the size of her own”; the young man who buries his dead father’s shoes at the bottom of the garden (My Father’s Shoes) yet still finds himself wearing a pair at his university interview.

The title story, Roll Up for the Arabian Derby, combines both approaches. From the confines of a "grey square room" within a holiday camp, Jenny loses her children, Emma and Tom, to the subversive ritualistic world of the Arabian Derby, with it’s "absurd jingle" and "fake fur panda swaying in the breeze".

"The man leaned towards her children. ‘You wanna play?’ She saw Emma shrink back slightly, closer to her brother … The man looked up briefly and Jenny caught his eye. It was the lined face of a heavy smoker, slightly seedy-looking with greying hair."
The holiday becomes a metaphorical battle between good and evil as Jenny fails to find any other entertainment in the camp capable of holding the children’s attention. When Tom disappears with a pocketful of tokens she fears the worst before finding him, "… with the man, on the other side of the counter, the man’s arm raised above his head in what looked like some sort of crazy gesture, and Tom reaching up too, his small body almost touching the man’s."

Wicks’ ability to show how the subtle shifts of balance in relationships can have life-altering outcomes is also evident in Upstairs, where a young woman spends her days drawing a "red line round a piece of land on a map". The half-glimpsed suicide of a colleague – "afterwards she could never quite remember if she had actually seen anything fall past the window" - forces her to confront the boundaries of her life, her job, her boyfriend for the first time.

In Water, the author’s use of metaphor and poetics is particularly effective. She uses a stream of consciousness POV to express the narrator’s thoughts as water drips in through holes in the roof - thoughts to an absent lover, a photographer - that she can’t convey in a letter. The imagery is poetic, sensual: "Your nipples like berries, mine flat and soft, changing under your fingers. A ribbon of dark film unrolling underfoot, acetic acid, the grain magnifier crashing, its small lens spidering like a windscreen where the stone hit. Five seconds? Ten? Fifteen?" As she recalls their relationship, the reader is left to wonder whether this relationship - like the roof - can be fixed … or is it, like the light on the roof in the photograph that her lover is printing, too far gone, too "peppered with holes"?

Roll Up … is experimental fiction in which the theme or subject matter often dictates or is reflected in the structure of the story. In Or, the story unravels in reverse as a woman attempts to work out where a relationship went wrong.

There is no epiphany for Wicks’ characters - more a discreet revelation, or an after-the-event realisation. The shift is often subversive or unexpected, and it is left to the reader to work out what has changed. This handing over of the story to the reader worked well for me. Wicks hooks us in, takes us on a ride then drops us off in unfamiliar, sometimes dark places, wanting to know more.

Diane Becker is a writer and artist and deputy editor of The Short Review. Her short fiction and poetry can be found on 6S, The Pygmy Giant, in 6S Vol2 and the Goldfish Press Anthology, The World According to Goldfish Vol 1 & II.
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