Once upon a time, I was a person who made the bold claim: ‘I don’t like short stories.’ Imagine that, just writing off a whole genre like that! In the past whenever I dabbled in short story collections (which wasn’t even that often so I’m not actually sure how I came to this conclusion), I guess I was always left feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more from the stories; basically, I wanted them to be novels.
But then last year, as a bookish New Year’s resolution, I decided I was going to overcome my aversion to short stories by forcing myself to read one a day – facing your fears head on and all that. Although I only lasted six months with the one a day, that was more than enough to dispel any notions I had of short stories ‘not being enough’. I came to recognise and appreciate the talent that goes into writing short stories. Of course, I read my fair share of bad ones too, or ones that just weren’t for me, but mostly I found a new love for the short story.
Fast forward to 2019 and I’m now always eager to pick up a collection and dive right in. Some need to be digested slowly, two or three a week. Most of the time though, I just devour them. Julia Armfield’s debut collection was one that demanded to be devoured. There was no way I could finish one of her deliciously dark stories and not immediately turn the page to the next one to see what her fervid imagination would offer me next.
It’s rare for a short story collection to be strong all the way through, but for me there was no weak story in this collection; every single one had something to give, something to chew over, something to make me wonder. From the first story, a raw and skin-crawling portrayal of teenage-girldom, I was hooked. This story looks at the cruel and dangerous relationships young girls often form, before taking a sinister turn and introducing us to the dark, magical realism that glimmers beneath the surface of this collection.
We have PhD students who collect male body parts in an effort to create the perfect man after a myriad of disappointments; bodies which become split from their ‘sleeps’, creating a city of insomniacs trailed by ghostly apparitions; girlfriends who come back from the dead. Armfield is fascinated with the body, but also addresses gender roles, societal pressures, adolescence, love, grief and revenge. I find it difficult to pinpoint a favourite in the collection as they are all so strong, but Formerly Feral seems to stand out the most: a strangely touching story of a young girl growing up with an unusual furry sibling.
Although her subject matter is extraordinary, ghoulish and grisly, Armfield writes with a straightforwardness that lends a ring of authenticity to the stories, which only serves to make them more unsettling. It makes you wonder what tentacled things might be lurking beneath the surface of everyday life; what might be simmering beneath the skin of the person next to you on the train.
If you love visceral, raw, oozing, viscous stories, then you need to have Julia Armfield on your radar. I for one will be waiting with bated breath to see what she comes out with next.