Singularity, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage)

Collection of short stories, or novel? Charlotte Grimshaw continues the narrative method that challenged and engaged readers of her last, award-winning collection, Opportunity, with discrete stories that can also be seen as contributing to a larger whole. Just as each one of us is the central character in our own life story and a bit-player in the life stories of others, so are Grimshaw’s characters given a foregrounded, prominent turn in one story, only to reappear in a marginal role or even an offhand remark in another.

The technique isn’t new – nearly a century ago, Sherwood Anderson made similar experiments in Winesburg Ohio, and Ernest Hemingway also wrote independent narratives with reappearing characters in his first collection of stories, In Our Time. Curiously enough it was Hemingway – a writer of very different sensibility from Grimshaw – that I was reminded of when reading Singularity. There is the same laconic flattening of events, the same refusal to glamourize, and the same, occasional gleam of integrity in the generally squalid atmosphere. A character who one moment wins our empathy – a policeman in Menton, for instance, sharing a joke with a young child – is in another scene beating up a North African immigrant. A self-absorbed, pretentious young woman, who has been neatly skewered earlier in the story, courageously intervenes. As a reader I found myself continually deferring and finally withholding from moral judgement of these characters. The narrating voice is a restless one, generally staying within one character’s perceptual frame for the length of a story, though sometimes roving from one character to another, as in “Pararaha”, the story of a family holiday. And even when a single perspective is maintained, we are provided glimpses of other perspectives, other ways of seeing that, we sense, may conflict with the presented one.

There is a kind of suspense, rare in literary fiction, winding through all these stories. It is the suspense of what might happen, of hovering disaster. Sometimes catastrophe is averted: the children in “Pararaha”, for instance, lost on a dangerous bush-walk, make it out unharmed. And sometimes it isn’t: an academic’s wife, cut off on the motorway, ploughs her car into a bridge and is killed. It is the arbitrariness, perhaps the meaninglessness, of life – the Fates poised above with their scissors. The academic imagines that, if he only he had been there to drive her, the accident would never have happened, but Grimshaw has artfully inserted an earlier paragraph describing him, just under the alcohol limit, driving recklessly on that same motorway. The bleak, rather mechanistic view of human motive and behaviour in these stories is conveyed in carefully crafted prose of often surprising beauty. Singularity is further evidence that Charlotte Grimshaw is the most interesting young writer of fiction in New Zealand today.

Christchurch Press

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tim Tweets