Salt Slow, by Julia Armfield

Picador, £12.99

Review by Richard Strachan

It’s more unusual these days to find a new author publishing a collection of stories rather than a novel as their debut. In a literary culture that prefers a saleable hook or an easily-digested pitch, books of short stories can seem too prickly and disparate; like poetry, they’re perhaps appreciated by aficionados but largely unread by the wider public.

In Salt Slow though, English author Julia Armfield, fresh from winning the 2018 White Review short story competition, gives the clearest demonstration of how much more interesting a good book of stories can be compared to a novel.

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Relying on thematic rather than narrative coherence, the individual stories can often provide the same sense of the apprehended moment as a poem; they’re spaces where ideas can be gestured at rather than exhaustively explored, or where images can be glimpsed and allowed to remain mysterious. Armfield’s stories are full of these moments as her characters unravel and mutate, both emotionally and physically.

The prize-winning story The Great Awake is ironically the weakest in the book, a slightly twee conceit where people are abandoned by their "Sleep" to permanent insomnia, and where those Sleeps take physical, anthropomorphic form. It feels slightly detached from the rest of the collection, adrift from the book’s main themes of transformation and change. Mantis for example is an excoriating exploration of teenage girls wrapped up in their changing bodies, each trying to outdo the others in their self-hatred: "It is Girl Language – a cosy bonding rite. We are all convinced we are too fat, too short too ugly; competing with each title with Olympic fervour". The narrator achieves a strange position in this hierarchy of performative disgust through her peeling, shedding skin, her bandaged hands and loosening teeth, although what lies beneath that skin is something truly monstrous.

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Formerly Feral channels the best of Angela Carter in its portrayal of a young girl whose new step-sister Helen is a wolf. Dressing her in "pie-crust collars, yellow hats and lacy cotton boots", the narrator’s step-mother treats Helen like a child, although the creature is savage and barely controllable, with a smell "like offal, like bone marrow beneath her dress." As the narrator starts neglecting herself, becoming filthier and more disgusting, her affinity for the wolf’s unbridled ferocity increases. Granite inverts the mutability of the female body and applies it to the male. Maggie, outwardly a "frank feminist, happy with her job and her hobbies, easy in her single skin" is possessed by a loneliness that is only dispelled when she meets her unnamed boyfriend. As her friends probe her motives ("It’s like you don’t want a man at all, you want an object. Something you can put away") it becomes clear Maggie is looking for what her boyfriend can’t provide, an objectification that gradually solidifies him into something safely inert.

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This objectification of men and the male body (something it is still surprisingly rare to read) is taken further in Collectables, where three postgraduate students share a ramshackle house and commiserate with each other about their appalling ex-boyfriends. "We talked about men unkindly and too often, our aggravation with the topic at large belied by the frequency with which we returned to it." While the other two are content only to moan about them, Jenny begins to translate her love of 1930s Universal horror films into a project to build the perfect man from a variety of different sources.

The title story is a poetic and disturbing meditation on pregnancy and birth, that most transformative of female physical experiences. Adrift on the tides of a drowned world, a pregnant woman and her husband harvest dead fish and scavenge from other boats to stay alive, nervously watching the freakishly large seagulls and cormorants, or the shadows of monstrous creatures below them in the deep. Out on the water too long, the woman’s body is changing too; her toes are becoming webbed, even as her pregnancy reaches its final stages. "She refuses to look at her bare skin beneath her clothes these days, isn’t sure what she might see pressing up against the surface of her stomach." The birth itself though, accompanied by "oceanic" pains, waves of sensation like a tide covering her as the tide has covered the world, results in something entirely unexpected.

Armfield’s debut introduces a significant new voice in contemporary writing; original and challenging, and concerned as much with the spare, poetic metres of her style as with her wider themes of femininity and the body. There’s a lightness of touch to these stories that demonstrates a confidence in and a clear understanding of her material. Even though they’re rooted in physicality and the material world, each story seems as strange and troubling as a dream; illogical and inevitable, and all the more powerful for that.