“I’m here. I’m here.” In “distance”, the last story in Jellyfish, Janice Galloway’s first short fiction collection in five years, the final words may be simple, but in the context of the collection as a whole, they say so much. Galloway’s characters are trapped in a variety of mundane situations; they tolerate, despair, endure, succumb, remain or escape, but always demand to be heard. We recognise and can share in their plight.
Galloway has won an impressive selection of writing awards since her debut novel The trick is to keep breathing was published in 1989. Her life experience clearly informs her writing, yet, even in her “anti-memoirs”, This is not about me and All made up, she is clear that these are works of fiction. “Writing isn’t life. Life doesn’t happen in paragraphs and they’re not people, they’re words”, she said in a recent interview in The Scotsman. So while the authenticity of the voices in these stories might suggest that they are informed by experience, nothing can be assumed.
Some of the stories are standouts. In “jellyfish”, a trip to the beach represents a precursor to the dangerous world from which a single mother fears that she cannot protect her now school-age young son; Monica tries to tell him about the cruelty of the world in a dead jellyfish smashed on the shore by others: “Maybe they hurt it just because it can’t stop them. Because they can.”
The staff and patients in a psychiatric ward and their relationships form the basis of “and drugs and rock and roll”. Their ordinary conversations reveal potentially dark situations which are never explained. It speaks to Ms Galloway’s writerly craft that, in the midst of so many characters whom we want to know more about, the most interesting one, Michelle, never actually sets foot in the here and now of the story. One past conversation and brief reference by some other characters is the most we hear about her, yet we see and feel her curled around the narrative in smoky coils.
The author is a master at changing style and tone to suit the subject. For example, “almost 1948” is a remarkable fictional creation, imagining George Orwell at Barnhill with his TB in its latter stages and a young son to support. Women abound on Jura, but the only woman who we imagine might have enlivened him, his wife Eileen Blair, is dead, and his realisation of his own mortality brings naught from him but a reckless pragmatism that does not bode well, especially with the foreknowledge of Orwell’s untimely death just over two years after this story is set.
Meanwhile, “burning love” is a satisfying read for anyone who has fancied setting fire to an ex’s worldly possessions, and is the most obviously humorous tale in the collection, although its ending darkens the tone of what precedes. The list of poetry books to be set on the pyre brings a whiff of horror and utter satisfaction – “Sylvia Plath, the Boston Harpie….Ted Hughes next, then Rilke, MacCaig, Neruda and Carol Anne Bloody Laureate Duffy – I’ll give you an onion all right, you eye-watering bitch.”
There is not a duff tale in this collection. There are some deft links between each piece and they all share some common detail with at least one other, from George Orwell to birds, from curtains to butterflies. These connections bring another interesting layer to the writing.
Jellyfish should be taken in by slow osmotic indulgence, and not guzzled in a glut of page-turning. Its stories might vary in content and tone, but the acute observation of mundane existences delivers powerful characters you want to grasp and lift out of the pages, slap across the face or embrace empathically. In what seem to be very ordinary lives on the pages of this collection, lie some extraordinary stories.