Reading the most revered short story writers, we are compelled to think about tradition. Picking up a collection by George Saunders, Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro, a genealogy makes itself felt, an anatomy of influence that stretches back through Denis Johnson, James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield all the way to the undisputed daddy of the form: Anton Chekhov. Since 2007, Chris Power has been surveying the history of short fiction in a column for the Guardian. Now his own debut collection has arrived and the fruits of his research are detectable on every page.
Only once, however, do they become explicit. In “The Colossus of Rhodes”, a British father of two and his Swedish wife vacation on the Greek island of Cephalonia. The father wonders what his daughters will remember of the trip – in particular, he worries about the sunburnt foot the younger has sustained – and contrasts their experience with a family holiday he took to Rhodes in 1985, aged ten. During that trip he crushed the skull of a dying cat – “I heard a crunch, like a Coke can being flattened” – and was fondled by a sexual predator while playing on an arcade machine.
The latter is “the main thing” to which the story has been building. But rather than explain what the psychological fallout may have been, the narrator assumes an almost professorial voice with which to consider its impact as fiction. “It would have been far more dramatic if the guy had started masturbating himself like the tramp in the Joyce story,” he reflects, recalling Joyce’s “An Encounter” from Dubliners, “but he didn’t”.
A halting poignancy comes with the eruption of the authorial first-person “I”. All of a sudden, we’re in a creative writing workshop, heads together, grasping for ways to speak the unsayable. The narrator introduces further “real” details – a waiter called Kostas, an American friend – then trims them back. “Stories need everything extraneous to be stripped away,” he says, admitting that he didn’t kill a cat, though he did see a cat get killed. By unpicking the process of fiction-making, Power asks us to consider, as he has done in his journalism, how and why fiction works.
Back in London, the narrator tells a lawyer at a party what happened to him as a child. The woman scoffs. “That happens to girls hundreds of times,” she says. “After a while it’s not even news.”
Can this possibly be true? the narrator wonders. He didn’t tell his own parents what occurred in the café, so why should his kids? And yet the chance their experience will differ, that his girls might escape harm, is a necessary and sustaining fiction. He compares it to the Colossus of Rhodes: the mighty statue of the Greek sun deity that was said to straddle the harbour. It became a vivid myth around which the people of Mandráki have been orienting themselves for centuries, a legend that in transmission became so real as to almost feel like truth.
Many of the ten sensitively executed stories in Mothers take place near sites of remembered, suppressed or imagined trauma. In “The Haväng Dolmen”, an archeologist visits a 5,000-year-old burial site on the Swedish coast. The story moves with the same contrapuntal rhythm as “The Colossus of Rhodes”, allowing him to recall being trapped in an underwater cave as a child. After a day of uncanny encounters – he cannot shake the feeling of being watched – he approaches the ancient burial site and flings himself into its mouth. In the following story, “Run”, another Brit in Sweden imagines scenes from the Second World War wherever he looks. But where the archaeologist’s fortresses, monuments and mass graves are being exhumed to be catalogued and understood, the more recent atrocities of Hitler’s forces remain invisible. Instead they manifest in the narrator’s imagination and in ours, conjured in wonderfully spare, atmospheric representations of place.
Echoes and motifs recur at controlled intervals throughout the collection: stones, journeys and trees in particular, things that reveal the passing of time. Bookending Mothers is Eva: a woman whose own mother died before she had the chance to get to know her. Eva is an Odysseus without an Ithaca who spends her adult life shuttling across the globe. Her journey is indicative of the book’s larger themes: the bonds between parents and children, the need to seek connection, to find a home.
Eva keeps an old guidebook of her mother’s with her at all times, living the life she assumes her mother dreamed of while trapped in 1970s suburbia. Even when her own daughter, Marie, is born, Eva cannot stay put. Her husband Joe wonders if Eva would be better off dead, rather than sending intermittent postcards to remind the daughter she abandoned of her absence. “I like the postcards,” Marie retorts. “It does me good knowing she’s out there somewhere.” A trainee doctor who shows none of her mother’s insecurities, Marie is proof that good can emerge out of tragedy.
In Power’s remarkable debut, he depicts mood, happenstance, self-deception and epiphany as well as any of his heroes. In using studied artifice, leaving out everything extraneous, he reveals life’s complexity: the very chaos that we reckon with by telling stories.
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £10
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war