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Balancing on the Edge of the World

Elizabeth Baines

My mummy's got a scar that she covers up with powder. Powdered skin is sweet and dry, has a perfume that lingers after someone's gone to church. Be careful near the dressing table, all those bowls and cut-glass bottles: scent that's been spilled stains the polished surface, and powder makes a breathless cloud... "

Reviewed by Melissa Lee -Houghton

Frank, original prose underpins all the stories and the central motif, power; in Balancing…This is a stunning debut collection by a writer whose prose deliberates its characters and themes with a keen sense of literary drama.
Baines often adapts her stories for stage and screen and that adaptability and sense of artistry is paramount in appreciating her work- it is contemporary in the acutest sense without being limited to being fashionably modern. 

Her timeless energy confronts social and theoretical standpoints, which seem always rooted in the necessity of the everyday. In Condensed Metaphysics a pizza parlour is scene to a group of young women who suffer some unfortunate drunken revelations about the ethics of human kindness. Place and time are not necessarily pinned down in many of the stories, but rather swoon toward a universality which is wholly admirable and devoutly charming in an age where art is accessible to the minute-hand. 

A Glossary of Bread traces an individual history of detachment, dissociation and hurt through various colloquial terminologies for bread. The language is tactile and affecting, and the narrative is more than appropriate for this age’s sense of dislocated youth. The originality of this story is particularly striking, and is followed by Going Back, my personal favourite of the book. A haunting, narcoleptic voice teeters towards the cliff-tops with a broken, shaky realism and a newborn. The prose is relayed in a drugged, slightly psychotic tone which suggests Post-Natal Illness. This particular theme is both necessary, fazing and is faced with an unforgiving style and approach. It is lyrical, staggered, deranged, doesn’t ask for bias but poses sociological questions which are rarely raised. 

The short-short Conundrum feels arrived at in the same way a line of poetic metre is conceived; with self-revelation and an arc of rhetoric which demands to be explored. The stories never feel forced, but prickle with a high-sensitivity to the themes which bleed through Baines’s concept of power: often nameless individuals dish out and receive humility, fear, violent threat, expectation... in The Way to Behave it’s revenge that turns a feminist principal on its surly head to leave the reader wondering which of the two betrayed women is the better off. 

Each story, though offering a heavily unreassuring perspective, feels weightless and tuned in, in the balance of the fickle order of things.

Melissa Lee-Houghton is a northern writer of poetry and short fiction, upcoming in Better Non-Sequitur’s anthology ‘See You Next Tuesday’ and the May edition of Succour magazine.

Melissa's other Short Reviews: Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo" 

PublisherSalt Modern Fiction

Publication Date: 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Longlisted for the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Author bio: Elizabeth Baines is a prize-winning literary author of two novels and numerous plays for stage and radio. Her reputation is consistent amongst her peers and readers alike, as an innovative and committed writer of distinctly pure talent.

Read an interview with Elizabeth Baines

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