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Words from a Glass Bubble

Vanessa Gebbie

Tell me, I said, turning my head away. What had she touched? A crush of colours, tangled threads of taste, salt and honey, artichoke and bitters, ripe plums, juice dripping off her chin, the smell of balsam. What had she felt? Smoothness, a raw white slip of the tide, rushing over flat sand, lace edged. What had she heard? The sea, she said, the tide rising and pulling the leaving the sand rippled and furrowed. "

Reviewed by Niki Aguirre

Words from a Glass Bubble, the debut from Vanessa Gebbie, is a collection of 19 stories, many of them award- winning. The author's prose is lyrical, poetic and appeals to the senses. Colours, sounds and descriptions are told in shades of light and dark. Sometimes bold, sometimes ethereal, the characters -- an Innuit family, a Serbian irrigation specialist, an Irish postal carrier, a young man who cleans shoes for a living, a kind-hearted priest who is not a priest -- all share a commonality of loss, dejection and hopelessness. What is comforting however is that in these tales the grave predicaments go hand in hand with introspection, love and the search for answers. 

In Cactus Man, the anti-hero Spike visits a social worker to find out his real name.

"She looks at the chlorophytum like it's just spoken or something. To me it looks like it's soaked up all the grief that's ever been in this room."
A wonderfully evocative story, Gebbie allows us to see fleeting moments of heartbreaking tenderness as Spike imagines what his birth mother must have been like. The author tempers these vulnerable moments with harsher, more realistic descriptions that make the characters believable, yet still worthy of our compassion. Witness to these human interactions in Cactus Man is the withering spider plant, a symbol of tiredness, resignation and also touchingly of hope. 

In Words from a Glass Bubble, Eva Duffy speaks to the Virgin Mary or the 'VM' as she calls her. The story is humorous and slightly surreal, particularly when Eva breaks the Virgin Mary from her glass bubble and puts her in her pocket to go about her work,

"…the VM's face peered like a small boy's pet mouse in a blue hood."
Beneath the layers of humour lie issues of unresolved grief and religious faith. In Fuck Magnolia, house painter Mike addresses his departed wife Emmie. Gebbie 'paints' the story of love and tenderness between two people who see the world through the same shapes and colours. The story is depicted in economical language, graffiti used as a clever way to recall the couple's moments of intimacy and togetherness but also to represent their connection through words.All the way through, colours weave in and out, contrasting emotion and passion against the mundane:
"I go, see colours to take it back to its roots, dark sensuous stuff, shining mahogany banisters, deep cream paintwork. Gaslight colours,"
says Mike, despairing that everyone just wants Magnolia. As the tale progresses, the couple's fate plays out in a crescendo of despair that the author captures perfectly through a combination of bells, clanging, Mike Oldfield and red painted letters. What is left for the reader after the last word is read, is the sensation of haunting loss. 

Although the language in Words from a Glass Bubble is striking and Gebbie's writing unapologetically poetic, the most successful and convincing narratives in the collection are those in which the prose doesn't take center stage, allowing Gebbie's characters to tell their stories in their own words. Then, the despair on the pages is so realistic it is almost palpable.

Niki Aguirre is an American writer based in London. Her collection of short fiction, 29 Ways to Drown, was published in 2007 by Flipped Eye Publishing. Her stories have been featured in Tell Tales, Mechanics' Institute Review, X-24 and LITRO Magazine. She is currently working on a novel.


PublisherSalt Modern Fiction

Publication Date: March 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?Yes

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

Author bio: Vanessa Gebbie's short fiction has won many awards including the Fish and Bridport prizes and has been published in the UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada and India, translated into Vietnamese and Italian and broadcast by the BBC. Her novel in progress won a first prize in the 2007 Daily Telegraph Novel Competition.

Read an interview with Vanessa Gebbie

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What other reviewers thought:

Tim Love