by Bethan James
Julia Armfield, Picador, 2019
‘The Great Awake’ is the story through which some may already be familiar with Julia Armfield; it won The White Review’s prestigious annual short story prize in 2018 and is the second work in this collection. It is a story of dazzling originality and forms part of a collection that abounds with insight and emotion, rendered in language of breath-taking precision and imagination. Armfield’s collection succeeds so tremendously because it repeatedly circles the unguarded spot between the foreign and familiar; stories are set in homes, in schools, in seaside towns, but what occurs there confronts the reader with the limits of their own reality. The strangeness we encounter in these clandestine settings centres on women and bodies in stories that seem both interrogated and reinvented.
This is a collection about women and their experiences; the protagonists, who often double as narrators, are exclusively female, and though men feature throughout they are somehow tangential, the enabler or the trigger of something beyond themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story ‘stop your woman’s ears with wax’, in which an all-female band’s music seems to evoke an unexplained, frenzied reaction amongst its female, teenage fanbase that leads to the public chasing and execution of men, though the story is subtler and more disturbing than this synopsis might suggest. This captures the difficulty of describing the stories in salt slow: an honest description of their narrative sanitises and dulls these stories, voiding them of their originality and unsettling intricacies; it cannot, essentially, do justice to that uncomfortable space between what we know and what we don’t, in which each of these stories revels. It would be more appropriate to describe ‘stop your woman’s ears with wax’ as a story that captures the feeling of being in a community of women, understood and energised, as well as the darker underbelly of such an experience, ‘the drag, the ache, the yearn, the need, whatever you want to call it’.
Armfield’s stories extend in extremis the inherent violence of womanhood: ‘we spend our lunchtimes comparing notes on bleedings and kissings and other similar crimes’. This is perhaps an appropriate tuning fork for the collection as a whole, where many of the stories feature acts of normalcy transplanted to settings, or stretched to proportions that make them violent and exposing. For example, ‘Formerly Feral’ is a story about a teenage girl coming to terms with the new shape her family takes after her father remarries and she gains a stepsister. The story is also a strange, animalistic rapprochement enacted between a girl, our narrator, and a wolf, Helen. The narrator’s stepmother enters her life, moving in ‘a sort of permanent sweep’ of tidiness and opening up the house ‘the way you crack a chest cavity’, while her daughter, the wolf, arrives with ‘the unfortunate habits of defecating in the corner of the kitchen and gnawing on the table legs’. More than this, Helen arrives proffering our narrator the possibility of dissolution between the bounds of human and animal, civilised and feral, the soft, unkempt edges of the body that can turn a teenage girl lupine.
The stories in salt slow are a series of metamorphoses in which characters and their bodies are unstable things, writhing and transforming over the course of a narrative. We encounter this directly in the first story of the collection, ‘Mantis’, as the narrator declares they have their ‘Grandmother’s skin. Problem skin’. The concision and directness of Armfield’s narrator invites us to sympathise: we too might have suffered acne, eczema, rosacea of our own. Perhaps we too have been ‘[checked] over with a swab of antiseptic’ by our patient, persistent mothers. But Armfield’s writing makes its reader comfortable only to take pleasure in stripping us of that comfort. ‘Mantis’ takes a brilliant, visceral twist as the narrator’s ‘throbbing sense of something rent or ruptured slicing down [their] spine’ at a house party unsheathes wings, and their problem skin ‘falls down unheeded to the bathroom floor’, cast off like teenage acne. Armfield’s stories do this again and again, deliberately proffer up intimacy, almost normality, to delight in stripping it from us, sometimes deceiving us of the critical distance that reminds us that women turning into insects or men turning into stone should be unbelievable, but somehow, isn’t.
Bodies dominate: even the weather is bodied: ‘a sore-boned morning’ in ‘The Collectables,’ while elsewhere ‘the sky was the colour of whaleskin,’ and ‘salt slow,’ the final story in the collection, ends with a description of the sky as ‘gory with stars, like the inside of a gutted night.’ The bodies of salt slow are invariably problematic; in ‘Cassandra After’ the narrator confides, ‘I had a bad body around that time’. Armfield understands that disobedient, nonconforming bodies are always the most interesting and it is these bodies that populate her work. ‘Cassandra After’ is a story that troubles the conventions of the bodily, dead and alive. The narrator, steeped in grief and possessing a ‘bad body,’ drinks too much coffee and forgets to brush her teeth, having developed a ‘habit of going to bed unwashed and waking up with my tongue furred over and tasting strangely of iodine’. Her girlfriend’s personal hygiene is similarly scant, but instead for the reason that she is back from the dead, ‘skin … coming away from the bone’ and ‘exposed tendons around her collarbone’. Every experience in this story seems mediated through the body; the protagonist watches Cassandra eating oysters on their anniversary date, sees ‘her throat moving as she swallowed and I thought of all the boys I had ever kissed at school’, while elsewhere even the question of the afterlife is a decision between a body burning or a body buried, and the narrator recalls telling Cassandra she would like to be cremated, though admits, ‘this was more of a snipe at the fact that I happened to be chilly that day’.
Much of the collection is imbued with terraqueous feeling, and nowhere more so than in ‘salt slow,’ its setting a flooded earth where a boat’s hull becomes the single solid surface in sight and legions of dead sea creatures bob liminally along the ‘ceiling of the sea’. Oysters, octopuses and jellyfish inhabit many of the stories: in ‘Smack’ enormous numbers of jellyfish wash up on a beach in the west of England as a woman watches, barricaded in as an act of defiance, from her ex-husband’s beach house. In ‘Cassandra After,’ Cassandra recalls the fate of her aunt who ‘died in the surf at Margate, blanketed with jellyfish’, as if a nod to ‘Smack’, linking the stories with a conceit of imagery around sea life throughout the collection that captures the sense of destabilising fluidity and movement in Armfield’s characters.
Images pulse through the collection, providing subtle but deliberate pivots of style. Teeth chatter through many of the stories and endure like dental records when the rest of the bodies atrophy into nothing or disappear or are drowned; the protagonist of ‘salt slow’ can look at her partner in ‘lean times’ and see ‘nothing at all but teeth,’ while in ‘The Collectables’ men’s bodies are literally broken up, each valuable for the single part it contributes to a grand, grotesque project, where ‘a bottom-jawful of straight white teeth’ is the finishing touch. It is the originality and exactitude of Armfield’s language that illuminates these stories and makes possible, even plausible, the conditions they inhabit. The final and titular story, ‘salt slow,’ begins with a description of dead lobsters at sea, ‘bobbing belly-up, claws thrown out, like a strewing of tulips’. To read this feels like a high watermark for similes has been set, though the collection offers multiple contenders for such an accolade; for example, a narrator confides that despite her Catholicism she had always imagined her girlfriend’s soul ‘like a stitch in fabric, metallic thread in wool’.
A quote by Daisy Johnson decorates the smart cover of salt slow and proclaims Julia Armfield a ‘gut-wrenching talent.’ The adjective is delicious and apt.
BETHAN JAMES reads English at Somerville College.
Art by Ellen Sharman