S&C Arts Correspondent Paul Valentine is impressed by a funny, irreverent, macabre and inventive new book of short stories by Sue Harper, local author and Portsmouth University Emeritus Professor of Film History.
If you thought that The Dark Nest was just a collection of short stories, you’d be very much mistaken. It would be more accurate to call these narratives perfectly formed artistic vignettes. Indeed, when I started reading this wonderful keynote edition hardback, I had thought that a trick had been missed by not including Lino Prints for each tale. Then I realised that such a thing would be imaginational profanity; for each story should be allowed to marinate and become any form which the imagination sets it in; that is exactly what The Dark Nest is: a Gothic/fairy tale canvass for you to paint as you read.
Halfway through the book, I wondered whether Sue Harper had indeed stumbled upon ‘Miracle Jam‘, as the beginning of the eponymous story in some way explains the conception of her oeuvre:
‘Once I believed in miracles. I loved the idea that people might fly, that a dog might talk, that one morning everything might seem new. And that people might choose to be how I wished them to be. It was fun to suppose that one might get one’s heart’s desire by dint of wanting it enough’.
Like the repetitive mirror image, this paragraph describes at least six of the forty-nine narratives within this luscious book. Harper uses fantastical conventions to circumvent any anxieties about sexuality the reader may have, whilst leading us further into a repressive world built largely around Freudian traps. The result is many writerly LOLs.
The subject of sexuality comes up often, I guess because of the taboo that surrounds it. I was reminded of baroque-era artists who got away with depicting nudity so long as their naked figures were saints. In The Dark Nest, the character of Sarah finds not a whale on the beach, but a giant penis. Clarissa longs for peace and has to stop her vagina from ‘growling’ at her clitoris. It is because the taboos themselves are so genially tangented within surreal situations that they become not only acceptable, but sheer fun.
Many short stories have a twist in the tail; an unexpected turn of events that was hinted at earlier. Harper’s often bizarre and always surprising twists result in a kind of ‘gothic realism’ where the extraordinarily subtle and intensely overt are merged – and yet the whole scenario remains rational. What is surprising is just how beautifully written these little gems are. They are amazingly short, averaging only 550 words a story, but don’t be concerned by this, they are all perfectly formed and there are nearly 50 of them. And both the variety and range of material is quite exceptional. Many authors do have a preferred scope but Harper appears undaunted by anything found under a dark rug.
The Dark Nest’s language is at once thoroughly engaging, thoughtful and paradoxical. Harper’s style is steeped in the tradition of good storytelling with short flowing sentences and a superb balance between description and plot. Have a dictionary by your side, though, for there is bound to be a word you won’t know but will nevertheless do the work of several hundred additional words. Another paradox is the juxtaposition of fairy tale tropes with Gothic sexuality, ‘Moby Dick’ is a good example of this. Indeed, the very premise here should be hilarious, but the telling achieves a startling pathos and gravity.
My favourite story is ‘Sofa Stories‘. I’m not sure whether this is based upon analytical thinking or because I used to supplement my childhood income by systematically trawling through the back of such furniture. The story’s theme is acceptance and its placement at the end of the book is appropriate, as so many of our difficulties arise from issues around our sexuality, and they are put to bed (pun intended) by accepting all of the quirks that have made us what we are today. We are all our very own ‘Sofa Story’.
And while we are on that topic, there is a certain amount of serendipity throughout the book as it entices us into that world which is both ‘naughty and nice’. This is exactly why the stories are so delicious and should be read with a generous glass of wine and a secret stash of chocolate.
Locked down as we currently are, I can’t think of a better way of exercising your imagination and getting away from it all. Enjoyment and delight guaranteed.