Julia Armfield: Salt Slow
Published By: Picador
Available from All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say:
In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, salt slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.
What I Say:
“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed”.
When I first started reading Salt Slow, (which by the way has one of the most beautiful covers that I think I have EVER seen}, I found the collection really easy to read, fast paced and extremely accessible.
Women are at the heart of all of these stories, but they hold the power and strength, while men are secondary, disposable characters that don’t really matter. Each of the stories are all so different, but at the same time, Julia Armfield has woven a sense of unease and other worldliness that permeates all of them. The world the characters inhabit feel close enough to ours to be recognisable, but it also feels slightly futuristic too.
In this book of nine short stories, you are absolutely immersed in the world that exists on the edge of ours. In Mantis, a teenage girl slowly morphs into a preying Mantis and uses her power to seduce a young man with devastating consequences. It works so well because it is written in a calm and understated way. Her Mum deals with it all very pragmatically, understanding that this is her fate, and attempts to help her daughter ease the pain of transformation with different creams and balms. Her teenage friends, obsessed with what they look like, and who does what with who, do what teenage girls do – if she doesn’t bother them, they generally leave her alone. This is why it works so well – if she had been marked out as different, and excluded from her world, the story would have been a much more traditional story in the vein of wronged outsider wreaks her revenge. Mantis is all the more powerful for the fact that her difference is accepted, and when her changing body embraces her different physicality and sensuality, you feel the change is constantly bubbling under the surface, and it has almost an air of inevitability which permeates the whole story.
This idea of young women undergoing transformations is an interesting one, and it is a theme which runs through Salt Slow. I loved the notion that these women were all on the cusp of discovering something about themselves, or those who are close to them, and the transformations make them stronger and define who they truly are.
In Formerly Feral, a young girl gains not only a stepmother, but also a wolf as a step-sister after her mother and biological sister leave. The wolf is called Helen, and although the girl is not named, they become closer and start to share similar traits. Their apparent differences serve to bring them together, and the wolf is more of a sister to her as time goes on. Helen understands the isolation and independence that the girl craves, and warns off those who get too close and scare her step-sister. Little by little, Helen and the girl become more alike and are the daughters that her father and step-mother have no qualms showing off to visitors. Julia Armfield’s skill means that this does not seem preposterous at all – because the world the narrative is set in does not treat them as outsiders. This is what makes the whole of Salt Slow so plausible – that everyone in the stories does not react to the seemingly incongruent relationships or happenings, they just accept them for what they are.
I have to say, that there were two stories which really resonated with me. The first was The Great Awake.
Imagine a world where not only does insomnia become a world wide epidemic, but that for those people who cannot sleep, you see a physical manifestation of your Sleep. This Sleep is not necessarily a peaceful being, but one that will make your life as uncomfortable as possible because they don’t rest either. The world is now full not only of people who cannot sleep, but also these beings who occupy even more space in an already disordered world. Trains are full, with Sleeps occupying all the seats, they all walk the streets and time no longer means anything because what’s the point if you can’t delineate day and night by the act of sleeping?
Janey, the protagonist of the story befriends a woman called Leonie in her block. She is a rare creature in that she is still able to sleep through the night, and even though they become friends, Leonie is desperate for a Sleep of her own so she can fit in with everyone else.
The Great Awake is a brilliant story which made me really stop and think about things. I am suffering with insomnia at the moment, and the notion of my sleeplessness as a human like object, is an intriguing concept. How would I react if I could see the very thing that was stopping me from sleeping? Would I want to rant at it, reason with it, or try to get rid of it? Are we all so wired and atttached to our screens and need to be connected 24 hours to the social media and internet that this notion of a world where we can’t switch off and fall asleep is in danger of becoming a reality?
As a teenager, like many others, I was devoted to following different groups – Wham, Culture Club, Wet Wet Wet and Spandau Ballet to name a few (Nearly 49 and not afraid to admit it!), which is why Stop your women’s ears with wax was such a perfect read for me!
It follows a girl band, who has slavishly devoted fans, so much so that they become more like a pack of out of control animals, determined to ensure that they protect their band at any costs. Mona is a young filmaker responsible for documenting the band on tour. The increasingly unsettling and violent devotion of the fans to the group mean that they almost become cultish in their behaviour, animalistic and sneering to anyone – especially any men who get in the way of the progress of the band as they become more and more successful.
All through the story, the power of the teenage girl is seen as key. They are the all encompassing sense of power for driving the story forward as the band move seamlessly through the story trying to be the most successful group they can. It is chilling to read the shared recollections of the people working with the band as they tell the reader what strange things have been happening as the band tour from city to city. A man from a previous gig is found asphyxiated, the tour bus toilets are clogged with feathers, and the crew are sleeping badly and having the same dream.
For me, the sense of hysteria and claustrophobia was entrenched in every page of this story. It was unnerving to see how the girls are so utterly devoted to the band which holds them in their thrall. It is as if they are being subliminally instructed to bind together and deal with any men who obstruct the band in their mission to be successful in which ever way they choose.
Salt Slow is a delicious short story collection that deserves to be savoured and re-read, as I think it is one of those books that will reveal something different to my reading experience every time I open it. Sharp, witty and defiantly different, Julia Armfield unapologetically puts women at the front and centre of all of the stories, and dares you to challenge them as to why they shouldn’t be.
Julia Armfield lives and works in London. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018.
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