Jane Rodgers, presents to the world her first collection of short stories, Hitting Trees with Sticks. The collection is a wide reaching one, taking us from Manchester to Uganda, and touching upon subjects as diverse as African tribal politics, homosexuality, the true nature of love, and death. Each story presents a snap shot, which though brief and to the point, betrays the depth of knowledge and emotional intelligence of its author. Rodgers also saves her book from the pitfall of many short story collections and manages to avoid repetition. Each story has widely diverse protagonists, locations and themes, but Rodgers also manages to vary her narrative style. From the more traditional first person female narratives in stories such as “My Mother and Her Sister” and “Conception”, through the reflection of the rhythms and syntax of African story telling in “Tale of A Naked Man”, to the disjointed and internalized narrative structure of “Morphogenesis”, Rodgers keeps the reader guessing what style of narrative they are going to encounter next.
Opening the collection with the hard hitting “Red Enters the Eye”, and following it with the insidious “Conception”, Rodgers seems to be embarking on a dark road, which she then mitigates with the humour of “Tale of a Naked Man” and “Kiss and Tell”. As is the case in these two stories, she frequently explores the idea of story-telling, of who is telling a story, and examines the idea of stories within stories, and also stories being told within families, so that perhaps one could say if there is any theme running through the book, it is the concept of “the story” itself and the importance such stories have in our lives. With “My Mother and her Sister”, “Conception” and “Saved”, the ideas of the centrality of narratives within families are explored, as well as how often these narratives differ from the truth. In “Where Are You Stevie?” Rodgers uses various narrators to explore the events surrounding a young boy’s possible suicide. However, she gives voice only to outsiders, exposing the fact that the stories we think we are integral are often only part of the truth, whilst much else remains hidden. Meanwhile, in “Sports Leader” Rodger’s exposes the stories that we tell ourselves in order to escape our own mundane lives.
In the review of the book in The Independent, Emma Hagestadt said, “Hitting Trees with Sticks doesn’t reinvent the form, but entertains with a set of cliché-free stories that rarely end up where you’d expect.” Although it is certainly true that Rodgers does not “reinvent” the short story, she certainly plays with our expectations of a collection such as this, and also with different forms of short story, be they of her invention or not. Rodgers shows a sensitive understanding of the human condition, especially in her narrative explorations of death and grief, which run alongside her consideration of regret. Hagestadt has also said in her review that Rodgers is “a writer more interested in storytelling than impressing with well-judged prose, Rogers’s tales can sometimes feel too matter of fact”; however Hagestadt may very well have missed the point. Whilst some might consider the prose of the collection simplistic and secondary to the tale they are telling, the very variation of style shows that Rodgers has a grasp on a wide range of narrative possibilities and styles. Hagestadt’s point about storytelling, however, reinforces the impression that here one has a collection which is, first and foremost, about stories and their telling.