Short and Sweet

While some great writers are known and even loved for their verbosity, these three authors definitively prove that less can be more, says Juanita Coulson

ONE WOMAN SHOW:A NOVEL by Christine Coulson (Particular Books, £20)

Christine Coulson (no relation) spent 25 years as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She honed her skills in concise writing there, producing the wall labels that accompany the artworks in the museum’s British Galleries.

The strict format gave her the idea for this unconventional ‘novel’, which charts the lives of its characters through similarly brief pen-portraits and snapshots of the protagonist and her entourage at different points in time.

We follow the heroine, Kitty Whitaker, born in 1906 and the epitome of the American WASP class, from childhood through various marriages and into grand old age. As an unmarried girl she is part of her parents’ ‘collection’, and subsequently belongs to a succession of wealthy but hopeless husbands.

Kitty is presented as a highly polished artefact with a ‘delicate glaze, exaggerated gilding and genteel curvature’, part of a garniture of decorative figurines.

That’s a concept too far, you might think, but the seemingly non-narrative paragraphs somehow add up to create mounting tension, with wry social commentary, feminist barbs and psychological insight bursting through the lacquered surface.

DISLOCATIONS by Sylvia Molloy translated by Jennifer Croft (Charco Press, £9.99)

In neatly crafted, concise chapters, most of them occupying a single page, Molloy charts her encounters with her lifelong friend M.L., who is suffering from dementia. This is a work of memorialising – of friendship, of a fading self and of a shared past – that explores the relentless disintegration of memory through disease.

It is elegantly and economically written, the kind of supple prose where not a word is wasted, and in its disciplined understatement packs a powerful emotional punch.

The narrator and M.L., exiled Argentinians living in the US, are literary scholars and one-time co-authors with a shared cultural and linguistic background. They tiptoe around M.L.’s cognitive lacunae, with arresting surprises along the way: M.L. reverting to the formal Spanish they never used in conversation, then breaking into song in the River Plate vernacular of their childhood.

On the flickering nature of the illness: ‘Twice her memory had burst its banks, giving rise to unconnected snippets of a past that had seemed lost.’ Each vignette is a small kaleidoscopic window through which layer upon layer of the characters’ lives is revealed with shimmering richness. It’s a challenge boldly undertaken and beautifully accomplished.

ENTER THE WATER by Jack Wiltshire (Corsair, £14.99)

A young man’s journey through university, a breakdown, a period of homelessness and eventual healing is richly and imaginatively traced in this sequence of short poems, which add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

It is an iridescent, impressionistic mosaic of a narrative, much like the reflections of water and light on the tiles of a swimming pool – an image Wiltshire deploys repeatedly and to great effect.

Other leitmotifs include birds: the homeless narrator is visited by a cast of feathered creatures, from pigeons to blackbirds, their literary references spread wide but worn lightly – Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, Ted Hughes’s Crow, and beyond.

The book opens with the line ‘he’s not always a nice guy, Nature’. The narrator does not shy from the grit and grime of urban rough sleeping, but even through this smeared lens he manages to find shafts of light that illuminate the beauty of the natural world (‘the felt-tip green of a butterfly’; ‘the iris flower and her sun-kissed cheeks’) as well as its cruelty.

Like a ‘sliding doors’ moment, the narrative splits and offers the possibility of redemption alongside its black mirror-image of self-destruction. Brave, innovative and strangely captivating, Wiltshire’s voice emerges as indestructible in its unabashed vulnerability.

Enjoy this book reviews? Every issue features three pages of books edited by Juanita Coulson. The Lady is published on the first Friday of every month! For your local stockist, use the store finder in the bar above.