Storm Warning
 by Vanessa Gebbie

Salt Publishing
Second Collection

"We watch your coach-loads gawping at shell holes, watch bored little girls trailing round new museums, watch older men standing (at least heads bowed) under the arch at Ypres, listening to The Last Post, and I can feel the guilt, feel the relief - we don't have to go through this, and this, this this and fucking this - and they'll go back on the ferry, the plastic, beery ferry with its orange seats, its kiddies shouting and swearing, young blokes like us bored shitless, reading magazines that no self-respecting man would show to a lady in my day."

Reviewed by Mark Staniforth

The twenty-one short stories that make up Vanessa Gebbie's latest collection, Storm Warning, explore war and conflict. It is, Gebbie makes clear, a way of paying tribute to her father, a WWII veteran who was, according to the back cover blurb, "an ordinary and gentle man… who suffered the after-effects for the rest of his life."

These are no Boy's Own cliches of dashing fighter pilots and Victoria Crosses. Gebbie's stories - jagged little fragments, some of which stretch to barely a page - invoke the harsh reality: her stories are about ordinary, gentle men like her father whose toils expose the futility of war and the inadequacy of our memorials.

The majority of the stories revolve around the two World Wars: the collection starts with The Return Of The Baker, Edwin Tregear, about a Cornishman who returns from the trenches to his job in the mines only to receive rather less than a hero's welcome from those who stayed behind:
There was a laugh, and Jarvis, the Miners' Federation type, pushed his way forward. "So tell us, Edwin Tregear…' he leaned against the wall, folded his arms. Tell us, what exactly did you do to be a hero?"
Gebbie's message is clear: for those who served, the horrors of war did not end with the final spatter of gunfire or the echo of a Churchillian victory speech. They are wars they cannot escape from, and which they will be fighting for the rest of their lives. In Confessions of a Drowned Dog, a Falklands veteran mourns his lost colleague; the old submariner in Background Noise shouts his war stories by the railway because "it takes a loud noise - like the coal train - to cover the sounds up in his head for a while."

There are sharp tales too from other, more recent conflicts - from Africa and the Middle East - as if underlining how little we have learned from past mistakes. A young girl is haunted by the sight of a potential escapee shot down attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. A boy is helpless to prevent his father being hauled away for a necklacing - "it is a dreadful smell, rubber burning", the narrator notes with shocking under-statement. In the book's most graphic passage, a woman meets a slow, horrific death in The Wig Maker.

Yet Gebbie's narrative, always raw and unflinchingly honest, never strays towards shock tactics. The (necessary) passage in The Wig Maker is notable as an exception. One of the most moving stories, Letters From Kilburn consists entirely of an exchange of letters between a young illegal immigrant who has fled the war in Iraq and a sympathetic deputy secretary at Buckingham Palace. It is an absolute triumph, hauling humour out of a bleak, hopeless situation; the absence of a final return letter from the Palace saying so much more than page upon page of laboured description ever could.

This is not an easy book to read. You won't find it in any of the newspapers' summer reading lists, and its likely Richard and Judy will give it a miss. You get the impression the author wouldn't wish it any other way. It's tough and uncompromising and there is not a hint of the glamour which society seeks to smear upon so-called successful missions, as if to thicken the surface so as not to expose the awful, tragic truths below.

Gebbie's bravery in digging deep beneath that veneer is to be applauded. Her collection is deeply affecting, and a moving testament to men like her father, who gave their lives for their country, whether they came home or not.

Read a story from this collection in Bellatrista

Mark Staniforth is a writer and journalist from North Yorkshire, England. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize His first collection of short stories, Fryupdale, is available free on Smashwords.

Mark's other Short Reviews: Lindsay Hunter "Daddy's"

Alan Beard "You Don't Have to Say"
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Vanessa Gebbie is Welsh. She is the author of Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt), a collection from her award winning fiction including prizes including Bridport and The Daily Telegraph. In 2010 she was Writer in Residence at Stockholm University. Her first novel, The Coward's Tale, will be published by Bloomsbury in November 2011.

Read an interview with Vanessa Gebbie