Freight Books presents novelist and short story writer Vicki Jarrett’s debut short story collection The Way Out. This short and bittersweet cluster of tales is an offering which undoubtedly reveals the author as a talent to watch, with both capacity and potential that will keep her audience engaged.
The collection has an interesting cohesion despite the disparate tones, themes and styles employed and there is a sense of progression throughout which shows that thought and consideration has been put into the volume’s construction and compilation. The opening two tales are perhaps the weakest, and so it is worth reading to the end as the collection definitely builds in terms of quality. Jarrett visits a variety of themes in her work, including falling in and out of love, motherhood and childlessness, mental breakdown and disturbance, escape from unsatisfying existence, death, sexuality and how to get up and start again.
Jarrett’s tales certainly pack the punch necessary for a good short story collection; she knows how to stick the knife in and twist it. With an interesting mix of black humour, macabre concepts, brutal emotional honesty and a wicked sense of suspense, the reader is often left not knowing what to expect. Jarrett creates a sense of tension in many of her stories, often resolved in such a banal way that they lull the reader into a false sense of security, which only gives more impact to the stories which do follow through on that tension. Standout examples of the latter are”What Remains”, “Human Testing” and “White Pudding Supper”. In some of the shortest works in the collection, “Her Feelings About Auckland” and “How Not to Get Eaten By Tigers”, Jarrett also shows her ability to communicate complex emotional situations through a snapshot of moments of tension between two people that many of her audience will find only too familiar. There is a certain bleakness to Jarrett’s outlook, and the underwhelming nature of the settings – chip- shop, call centre, low end rental property – all add to the grey tone of the collection. Engaging with the nightmarish nature of inner mental turmoil, Jarrett manages to communicate the oppressive and destructive nature of these ordinary surroundings. “Fitting” and “The End of Everything” work particularly well to contrast the surreal nature of altered mental states within the everyday.
Yet The Way Out also balances this bleakness with small glimpses of hope and little philosophical nuggets on the human condition that speak to the resilience of the human spirit, making the collection surprisingly uplifting. Laying the bare face of life openly exposed, Jarrett shows us its beauty, hinted at in a quote from ”Rubble”;
After destruction comes construction, putting one piece on top of another. This simple act defines us. We are the builders.
It is these rays of light in an otherwise desolate landscape which really make this collection worth reading. With the theme of transportation to new possibilities, the final story, ”Red Bus”, offers an escape from the grey world. The closing line of both the story and the collection gives some parting advice to readers.
I still can’t see what number it is, whether it’s the one I’m supposed to take or one that’ll get me lost and leave me stranded in some godforsaken place I don’t recognise, full of industrial units and three-legged dogs. I could stay right where I am, safe and dry. Or I could step out and take a look.
This is, in the end, what this collection is all about: the way out. Whether Jarrett’s characters escape physically from their situations or into their own heads, each of these tales is about an exit in one way or another. With her final lines, Jarrett invites her reader to do the same. Take a chance, take a look, take the way out.