I’ve been thinking (as I begin work in earnest on my PhD thesis) about the relationship between ‘oral’ tales and short stories. This was prompted by a claim I read by an academic that orality is influencing contemporary short fiction. He wasn’t talking about the recent surge in reading aloud events, rather hinting at the appearance of orality in text, but said no more than that.
Ever since I’ve been thinking about voices and telling in new short stories, so I was excited to read the blurb for Kirsty Logan’s new collection, A Portable Shelter. The stories in this beautifully bound book are framed by an external narrative of sorts: two women take turns to speak to their unborn baby, each secretly telling tales in defiance of their promise to one another that they would only tell truths to their child.
What I found inside the book was not a series of stories told in alternating voices, but rather a whole collection which addresses the function of the tale, or story, in our lives. The two women tell stories that they hope will teach their child about the world, but not in a direct, or obvious way. The theme of story, and how much we need it as humans, is present throughout.
It is most striking in a story called ‘Ex-‘. This story, alongside others in the collection, is told in the first person, but not by one of the mothers. Rather, a man tells us about a series of events in his life, explicitly refusing to make sense of them by putting them into a recognisable narrative: “I get it. Stories need sense. Connection, logic, motivation. ‘He did this later because this happened to him earlier.’ But not here. I want to say right now, up front, that this isn’t a nice and neat and psychologically satisfying story. Because it’s not a story. It’s my life.”
Except that what he reveals is precisely a logical, satisfying story – at least to the readers. We can’t help ourselves but make sense of his later attitudes and actions by referring to the things that happened in his childhood. We construct a satisfying story in spite of his instruction not to. It is an explicit exercise in revealing our propensity to do this, which throws the other stories in the collection into relief, as narratives derived from a much more complicated, nuanced reality.
Not that the stories here are realist – there is a satisfying helping in this book of the supernatural, drawing as it does on the fairy tale realm which, although unreal, helps us to see situations clearly.
Orality in Logan’s collection does not appear in the guise I had imagined, but there is plenty of it. Stories told in the first person include ‘The Keep’, told by a collection of non-humans (I won’t say exactly what they are for fear of spoiling it) as they plant increasingly sinister gifts for a woman who has gone to live with her lover in a caravan parked up in a tree. Here the narrators are knowing where the woman they tease is not, whereas in ‘The Animals Went in Two by Two’ the reader understands what the protagonist refuses to as he clutches memories his uncle, the single positive influence on his somewhat pathetic life.
The human voice is perhaps at its most sinister in the story ‘The mother of Giants’. Here we watch a story repeated by the women of a community suffering through starvation, each time one of their members gives birth. “There was a woman who loved her baby,” they begin. The reader knows what is coming (I won’t tell!), and watches in horror as the narrator eventually finds herself being told that same story.
It’s intriguing to watch a tale-teller such as Logan address what her work is up to in the act of displaying it, and doing so far more gently than earlier fairy tale writers such as Robert Coover or Angela Carter. Her stories are not all pretty, but they are told with good intentions by the two mothers in A Portable Shelter – a reminder that even nasty fairy tales can serve us well.