Insignificant Gestures
 by Jo Cannon

Pewter Rose Press, 2010
First Collection

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"Running at night I’m invisible. Only the security lights that switch on and off as I pass mark my existence. A yellow mist hugs the streetlights. In the deserted park someone has scattered broken glass at the foot of the slide and twisted the swing seats too high for a child to reach…. In the day I avoid the park because I know that a lone fat man is not allowed near children. "

Reviewed by Daniela Norris

Malawi, war-time Britain, a gym in the city, a traffic jam that lasts two decades – all these settings provide the backdrop for Jo Cannon’s tales of pain, loneliness, loss but also optimism and hope. In a mosaic of past and present, imagination and often-surreal reality, painful truths and bitter regrets, her stories infuse into the reader’s psyche like mulled wine on a winter day. Reflections of ourselves, of people we know, of those who we sometimes pass on the street and pretend we haven’t seen, of persons we want to be and of those we dread to become, they are all present in this beautifully interweaved yarn.

African immigrants; uncanny men; brave women who were nearly broken but then, like reeds, let the wind pass and stand back up supple and proud; some lost souls, and a few that have been found, provide the cast of this rich collection, alongside other memorable characters.
“My cousin Gary was a bigamist. A trigamist to be precise. Auntie Doris was grandmother to his three families, with a photo collection for each. One set of snaps was usually on display because those children lived nearby. The rest she brought out and rearranged when the others visited. Once from her window my aunty spotted a grandchild heading uninvited towards the tower block entrance. By the time he’d ascended the lift and reached her door, Doris was breathless from her rush to take down and conceal one set of photos, locate and exhibit the next.

As a little girl I would browse around her flat while she bragged of her only son’s academic and sporting prowess. Even aged eight, I noticed an inconsistency between the stories and my observations of my loutish teenage cousin.”
(from Evo-Stik and the Bigamist)
Cousin Gary is far from being the only clearly-defined character in Insignificant Gestures. A mysterious couple, Eve and Tim, pop in and out of seemingly unconnected stories.
“In the wall to wall mirror Eve watches the man writhe. His cheeks and lips stretch, his eyes protrude. Unable to bear the grunts, she proffers her dumbbells. ‘Try mine. They’re much lighter.’ His face implodes into wrinkles. ‘I think I’ve just popped something,” he says. ‘Steady on.’ He puts down his weights and shakes his arms. ‘I’m here five days a week and it’s still agony,’ he confides. ‘The mirrors are the worst thing,” Eve says. ‘We all look ridiculous.’” (from Pump It Up)

But British settings are not the pulsing heart of this collection. The interaction between the blasť and those struggling to survive, those who have very little and therefore risk everything for a better life, provides the most memorable piece of narrative.
“Mercy is sick today. She was sick yesterday and the day before that, but tomorrow will be better. An old woman gave me medicine from the bush. I boiled the herbs to juice and made my sister drink. Last week Mercy returned from the city. Wrapped in her chitenge, she lies on a straw mat outside the hut. Her forehead shines and sweat darkens her blouse. Flicking at flies, shooing curious children, I guard her. At midday I light the fire for nsima. Not everyone in the village will eat today. Fearing a neighbour’s jealous magic, I take care not to clatter the cooking pot. As the water simmers I picture my sister’s altered face in the troubled surface. Taking the bucket I walk half an hour to the tap, wait my turn and fetch water to bathe her.
The woman asks, ‘What’s wrong with Mercy?’”
(from Mercy Is Sick Today)

“Rain fell for weeks from a low metallic sky. As I drove to work and home again, separated from the city by the warmth and music inside the car, I began to notice changes in the half-light. Streets that used to empty at dusk had taken on the expectant, temporary air of a railway station. Every evening people and their belongings cluttered the pavements, yet by morning they’d gone. There were children everywhere, inadequately dressed, sly and darting as squirrels. People began to park in the surgery car park under plastic sheets and tarpaulins. The police moved them on, but most mornings I shifted bags and boxes from my parking space. So when a small figure left the damp huddle of children by the wall and headed for me, I was wary.”
(from The Spaces Between)
The latter story, The Spaces Between, is one of the strongest in this memorable debut collection that not only brings the realities of the less fortunate majority to those amongst us who are lucky enough to read it in a warm, dry space, but also holds much promise as Jo Cannon, a medical doctor who has spent many years working in Malawi, turns her real-life experiences into palpable fiction, and makes the reader see into the hearts and minds of those sometimes distant characters that by the end of the book become as familiar as our neighbours in a place beyond the constraints of time and social status.

Win a copy of this book! See the Competitions page for details.

Read an extract from a story from this collection on Pewter Rose Press

Daniela Norris is a former diplomat, turned writer, reviewer and global nomad. She is the author of numerous award-winning short stories, articles and essays, and co-author of Crossing Qalandiya: Exchanges Across the Israeli/ Palestinian Divide (Reportage Press, 2010).

Daniela's other Short Reviews: Lynne Patrick (ed) "Criminal Tendencies"

Dede Crane "The Cult of Quick Repair"

Alexandra Leggat "Animal"

"Tales of the Decongested Vol 2"

David Eagleman "Sum: Tales from the Afterlives"

J. Robert Lennon "Pieces for the Left Hand"

Dylan Landis "Normal People Don't Live Like This"

Wells Tower "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned"
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Jo Cannon is a G.P in inner-city Sheffield. She has worked in Malawi, Tasmania and an ex-mining town in Derbyshire. Her stories have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, most recently Route’s Book at Bedtime, and successful in competitions including Fish International and Brit Writers Award.

Read an interview with Jo Cannon