Hot Kitchen Snow
 by Susannah Rickards

Salt Publishing
First Collection

Awards: Joint Winner, 2010 Scott Prize

"Tina tries to fake a casual getaway, but her movements come out all staccato, like their cat Cora, when she’s out stalking, pretending to be a bird. She walks away from her parents as stably as she can, but her legs feel all brittle and stubby. She will walk away in a straight line and she won’t stop till she’s hit by a car or drowned in the sea."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Hot Kitchen Snow was a little slow to capture me. It was partly the domesticity of kitchen utensils in the cover design. It drew me into the kitchen part of the title and I imagined a collection of stories about housewives, or stories confined within the home. But this is not what Hot Kitchen Snow is concerned with. Yes, there are kitchens, and stories exploring family life, but this collection reaches far beyond the domestic into Nairobi, prisons, Spanish youth hostels, onto sea cliffs, and into the arms of drunks.

Many of the stories explore familial relationships, but in a way that vividly captures the moaning and arguing of family life, the poverty of leaking twin tubs and hand-me-downs. There are misunderstandings, misconnections, the gaps in communication that exist in day-today life. And then there are those defining moments: the separations and losses; the only good moment in a person’s life, but that turns out to be nothing, ordinary or forgettable in another’s memory.

These stories are quirky and distinct. They are not what we expect when we start reading. A boy is invited to the funeral of a girl who had a massive crush on him, but he didn’t even know her name. A woman is rescued from the electric shock of a puddle of water on the kitchen floor after her husband left her there. At a disaster of an expensive party, the host would rather be in the kitchen. There is miscarriage, divorce, imprisonment, domestic violence. Children are captured in the middle of adult difficulties, and adults are at their most vulnerable.

These are stories that are easy to immerse yourself into: rich, vivid and patterned with description that is so specific in time or geography or social setting that it almost feels familiar. Susannah Rickards captures life in all its ordinary, beautiful, and painful detail: "the plock-plock of rain in buckets around the room"; "the hamster-nest smell of him"; "with rust stains under the taps and mould between the tiles." There is a real appreciation of the sensory experience, and this writer knows (or researches) her settings with her eyes, ears, nose and fingers. She places us right outside Costcutters, or near the Tilda factory, or in a corridor of the Commonweath Institute with all the Odissi dancers.

The writer takes us to uncomfortable places that feel familiar by the way they are grounded in real detail. In Things Like Meat we learn from a child’s perspective what goes on behind closed doors, in the very different family lives of two friends. The intimacy of friendship and families is explored in bedrooms and sitting rooms, with a backdrop of Doctor Who, knee socks and the IRA. These are powerful combinations. The ordinariness and upset of everyday life all mixed up in a child’s eyes.

There are particularly strong child perspectives in this collection. In Dog in the Yard, a beautiful story, a girl discovers her parents may get divorced, and the story vividly captures her feelings through the haziness of the sun, and the itchy soreness of a guard dog’s neck where the chain has been rubbing.

A couple of stories did not reach me, or made me wonder what it was really about. But most of these stories pulled me so deeply into the emotional drag of their characters lives that I was left a little breathless.

There are several very short (two or three page) stories. The Dust Volcano is a perfect story with an almost biblical feel. Moon and Leaf are beautiful prose poems, and Moleman is a beautiful personal tale of the true story of a man who buried tunnels beneath his house in London.

There are stories that picot round a central image. Joy in the title story, opens a ceiling window so that snow falls into the hot kitchen, and Elsie’s mum peels a mango in Mango. These images or moments transform otherwise interesting and well-written stories into stories that are beautiful, and distinctly resonant.

And then, there are the emotionally devastating stories. The Paperback Macbeth left me in awe. A political prisoner in an African prison imagines rooms from his past. We follow him through his telling of his arrest, and eventually his release. There is little comfort in this story, yet the character attempts to invoke it through his memories. Odissi Dancing is the beautiful story of how a self-conscious overweight girl finds her sense of belonging in the world. In Life Pirates, the last story in the book, a drunk throws himself at a woman in the park, almost assaulting her. We don’t understand her reaction, until we are drawn back into the connection between these two people, how he supported her and understood her in a way nobody else could.

These were my favourites: where we are pulled along by a story, drawn into it so that we feel what it is to be a single mother leaving her children alone for the first time, or to hear the sounds of violence through a house-wall.
This is what I mean by slow-burning. On first appearance, this is a well- crafted, beautifully written collection, but it’s only when we get deeper into the book that we find something extra here, something remarkable that makes certain stories linger in our minds, make us question, wonder, and look away from the page and say "wow".

Read a story from this collection in Pequin

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone and This Road We’re On (Flax Books), Transmission, Ouroboros Review, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, Cake, and Pank magazine.

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

Ailsa Cox "The Real Louise"

Mary Gaitskill "Don't Cry"

Lori Ostlund The Bigness of the World"

"The House of Your Dream"

Ethel Rohan "Cut Through The Bone"

Alex Epstein "Blue Has No South"
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Susannah Rickards comes from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and now lives in London. Her debut collection of short stories Hot Kitchen Snow won the Scott Prize in March 2010. Her stories have been published, anthologized, won and placed in various competitions including The Yellow Room, The New Writer, The Independent, BBC Radio Opening Lines, The New Writer, Commonwealth, Pen, Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger, Fish, Conan Doyle Award. She is married with twin boys.

Read an interview with Susannah Rickards