In Eley Williams’s stunning debut short story collection, hedgehogs sit “like asterisks, like parodies of stars”, we are told the word tortoise has the same etymology as the words torture and torment, and a person with complete synaesthesia – “dawn’s light through my curtains stinks, my first cup of tea is an orchestra tuning up” – attempts online dating.
Produced by independent London publisher Influx Press, Williams’s voice is a new and already developed one, and her writing is a pleasure to experience while it eludes plot-driven description. The very first line in the opening story goes: “The plot of this is not and will not be obvious”, and that is one of the strengths of this collection. Language in these stories is omnipresent and aloof as Williams’s characters attempt to come to terms with themselves and those around them, and the reader is offered glimpses and glitches of their psyche. We often encounter characters leading up to or immediately following missed moments. Much remains unsaid, and the emphasis Williams places on interior language throughout these vignettes is also to acknowledge how, in life, we are often impotent in expressing our true selves aloud due to fear, pride or hesitation.
Playing with not only words but the space on the page, Williams deftly creates strange, delicate worlds in which characters attempt to come to terms with themselves and those around them. She is clearly drawn to those little moments that define us: why is it so difficult to kiss a partner whilst looking at a Bridget Riley print in a gallery; why can’t we reach through a telephone so the person on the other side knows just how we feel?
In these stories, motives and intentions prove to be as malleable as language, and the often anonymous characters are their own worst enemies. In Spins, the protagonist sits for hours staring at a door, bonding with a spider as she tries, hours after a partner has left, to find “the right word to shout at a departing figure”. In And Back Again a lover daydreams about travelling to Timbuktu to prove her love in the manner of a certain song from musical theatre. And in Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef, a chef specialising in illegal ortolans struggles with his own conscience: “They are still songbirds, after all, even when they are screaming in the pot.”
The stories in Attrib. are such treats they deserve to be read like a properly made coffee: don’t take too much at once; enjoy in your favourite place; let each story percolate.