Kate Atkinson

Resonant Short Stories

Sleepless, balanced on the verge of consciousness, the reassuring rhythms of the shipping forecast – Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire – carry us to distant shores. Heligoland dropped off that list in 1956 to be replaced by the more prosaic sounding German Bight. For Rowena Snow, the heroine of Shena Mackay’s new novel, it remains forever a far away place where life might be happy again.

Rowena’s childhood world was destroyed ‘like a hurricane roaring out of blue skies.’ Orphaned in India, raised in Scotland until her aunt dies suddenly and then sent to an experimental school in England, Rowena has drifted through life, like flotsam carried along by other people’s actions until she finally arrives at the Nautilus, an experimental, Modernist building, designed like the shell of the same name, with a central chamber and subsequent chambered rooms spiralling out. Originally a Utopian haven for artists and intellectuals, now only two of its original inhabitants remain – Celeste Zylberstein, its joint architect, and Francis Campion, an elderly poet whose time has been. Gus Crabb, a dealer in bric-a-brac, seeking refuge from his marriage, is the only other resident.

Marooned and adrift in a place where the world intrudes only occasionally and then with little impact, the characters are eccentric and convincingly real. There is epiphany of sorts for Rowena and the other characters, but this is more about acceptance than resolution. Narrative is not really the point:Heligoland (Cape HBK £15.99) is paced like a series of short stories strung together by a slender thread. Instead, Shena Mackay’s exquisite prose carries us along in a helter-skelter of unconnected activity that is by turn, comic, insightful and grindingly sad. With this dream-like novel, Mackay has once again marked out as her own the territory of characters edged to the margins, living lives of dilapidated grandeur.

While Heligoland is resonant of short stories, Kate Atkinson’s collection, Not the End of the World (DoubledayHBK £12.99) has elements of the novel:short stories so inter-linked by allusions to Greek and pop culture, recurring motifs and characters that refuse to be confined solely to their own story. The collection is bookended with stories of Charlene and Trudy. In the first, they shop in an Elysian paradise of consumerist hedonism. Gradually, intimations of mortality and of something rotten ooze out from the cloying excess – ‘Somewhere in the distance a bomb exploded softly.’ Caught in a world where shopping is a pastime while bombs are dropping, they muse:’Or perhaps there’s another world – except it’s just like this one …’

Atkinson’s stories are set in a world so ordinary it is almost caricature – Scottish rain and tenements, Buffy, Star Trek. And then, just as you settle down, out of the corner of your eye something odd intrudes – cats as big as tigers, a cape that confers everlasting life. Filled with magic, doppelgangers, transformations and a looming apocalyptic vision, the stories constantly question the characters’ sense of self and their place in the world. The collection resembles interconnected rooms in a doll’s house where a larger, more powerful hand hovers overhead. Atkinson is on dazzling form, an erudite sorceress of imagination and language with a sense of humour.

‘Pleasureland’ Charlene and Trudi are holed up against the impending apocalypse. ‘Tell me a story’, one says to another. ‘The fish that swallowed a magic ring

…, the man who woke up and found he was a cat

…, Aphrodite in love’

… but we’ve heard them all. The power of story-telling to spin things out is still there, but time is running out. But hey, ‘Don’t worry – ‘It’s not the end of the world.’

Copyright Clare Simpson 2005.