Thursday, 4 March 2010

Radio Baby

Here’s the second in my (very) occasional series where I have a go at explaining what I like about my favourite stories. (At this rate, I might get to the end of the list by mid 2011.)

Radio Baby appears in Deborah Kay Davies’s collection Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the beautiful, which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2009. The book’s success caused huge rejoicing among lovers of the short story form - and not just in Wales.

At the start of Radio Baby, a mother has discharged herself early from hospital soon after giving birth to her third child. On one level, the story is ‘about’ post-natal depression, but the writing isn’t in the least didactic or preachy. Davies offers no overt explanation of the mother’s strange behaviour on her return to the family home, and does not set out to elicit either sympathy or condemnation on the part of the reader. We are distanced from the mother’s predicament by the fact that the story is narrated in the first person by the family’s oldest child, Grace, who observes and catalogues her mother’s actions with a deadpan matter-of-factness:

“Mother starts to doodle on the paper, every now and then stopping to listen. I ask her what she’s drawing. I’m portraying the child in the room upstairs, she says and holds up the page. She has drawn a naked baby lying in some grass. From the neck down it appears normal, but where its head should be there is a radio.”

Early in the story the mother insists on having a radio playing constantly to try to drown out the sound of the baby’s crying. As the story progresses she begins to identify the baby with the radio in an illogical, increasingly dangerous, way. The chilling final words of the story contain a hint that she has killed the child:

“There, she says, giving me the bedroom key and dusting her hands, I’ve turned off that radio for good.”

As punch lines go, this is pretty hard to beat: nothing is spelled out, no obvious emotion is indicated, but the telling detail in the parenthetical phrase ‘dusting her hands’ is tremendously evocative.

The world of Radio Baby has nightmarish features. Like all good nightmares, it contains mundanity mixed with a bizarre logic, all related in the convincing voice of a precocious child. If we read the rest of the collection, we know that there is an unhinged quality to Grace herself, but the story can be appreciated on its own, without this knowledge.

In its concision, this is a proper short story, with none of that obsessive need to provide ‘coherent’ psychological explanations for human behaviour that can bedevil so much fiction. Above all, for me, it inhabits the territory where writing works best, that borderland between familiarity and an irreducible strangeness. I first read an earlier version of this story about ten years ago, and it’s one of those I can’t get out of my head.