Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Insignificant Gestures, by Jo Cannon

Jo Cannon is an online writing buddy of mine, and I recently attended the launch of her first book, Insignificant Gestures. Since then, I’ve been working my way slowly through the collection. Like all good short fiction, you need to take your time with these stories, to savour everything they have to offer. They are multi-layered, and resonate in the mind long after you’ve finished reading. Above all, the characters are so well-realised I found myself wanting to start talking to them each time I finished a story and put the book down.

In her day job, Jo works as a GP in Sheffield, and detailed medical knowledge underpins the precise descriptive writing in a many of these stories. Some of them are set in Malawi, where the struggle of medical staff to perform basic functions in the face of desperately inadequate facilities acquires a heroic dimension:

“Trembling with tension, I detach the placenta from its gritty bed and drop it into a bucket. The barely anaesthetised mother murmurs. Frustrated by blunt instruments and limited skills, I feel a quick jolt of anger.”

The main focus in these fictions, though, is always on the human drama, the uncountable tragedies and indignities suffered by people whose stories are rarely, if ever, heard. Whether they live in Malawi or Dagenham, Jo Cannon gives these ‘insignificant’ people a voice, bringing them vividly to life for us on the page. People like Nasma, Amos and Rosa, all refugees from conflict or oppression, struggling to fashion new lives for themselves in an indifferent or hostile environment in Britain. People like Mercy, wasting away from an unnameable illness when she returns to her village after her dream of a new life in the city turns to ashes. Or Jack, watching his parents’ marriage collapse and expressing his powerlessness by just lying down in the garden.

What gives these stories their power is Jo Cannon’s ability to move effortlessly from precise, matter-of-fact description to another register, where the depths of her characters’ emotional lives are revealed:

“I stack boxes in a storeroom in a cold English city, beneath harsh artificial light that throws no shadows. Lorries arrive by day and night and I record deliveries in a book… Only the blood in my head is hot and loud. I’ve built a fence of mirrors around the past. I guard it vigilantly and it works, reflecting back only the moment… I barely speak this language. Words squirm just out of reach. My voice, strange and thick as if from a mouthful of mud, echoes in this Spartan place of white walls and brown cardboard.”

Not all the stories are about suffering. One of the best pieces in the book, ‘Love on the Rocks’, includes a joyful erotic account of middle-aged lovemaking. Even here, though, the author makes us keenly aware of the impermanence of happiness, as the protagonist imagines what the future holds for her and her partner, using the sailing imagery that has underpinned the whole story:

“They will see many things and thread many more beads on this life they have strung together. Yet Eve understands that in time one of them will falter. Despite his broad shoulders and middle-aged vitality, she suspects this will be Tim. She will paddle for both of them, but one day he will slip away from her into the waves and she’ll carry on alone.”

There is much more I could write about this collection, but, really, the best thing is to buy a copy and discover it for yourself. You can order the book here

I can guarantee you won’t regret it!

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