salt slow by Julia Armfield

‘salt slow’ is the debut collection from Julia Armfield. In this review, I will be touching upon each story, before giving my overall impression of the collection. You might enjoy short story collections by reading the stories at random or reading them in order but either way this review should have what you are looking for.

MANTIS

The collection starts off as it means to go on. The first story perfectly capturing the rest of the collection. In this story, notions of beauty, transformation and puberty are all explored through a darkly comic tale. The story is about a young woman who suffers terribly with her skin. She is compared to a leper and a burn victim in just the first couple of pages. As the story unwinds and the main character attends a party, events take a turn for the gruesome.

What I really like about this story is that the concept is so relatable. We have all felt uncomfortable in our own skin, felt like we stand out for all the wrong reasons and Armfield presents these feelings in a vivid and unforgettable way. The ending is tremendous, if a little predictable, and it has all the beats I want from a good, scary story without in any way becoming cliché. An excellent short story.

THE GREAT AWAKE

Next up is a story about sleep or more specifically, the lack of sleep. It feels like it was written in one, coffee drenched evening on the edge of hysteria. I won’t spoil the concept because it is so unique and enjoyable to discover it as you read.

This story is very different to MANTIS and an interesting pace change for the second story of the collection. It is joint with two other stories as being the longest in the collection and the extra length allows the story to be fleshed out. The ending is surprisingly tender and left me with a real sense of melancholy which was hard to shake.

THE COLLECTIBLES

This, the third story in the collection, is perhaps my least favourite. That’s not to say it isn’t great, but more because it has such strong stories to compete. It is the story of a woman going through heartbreak, burning her ex’s stuff and lamenting with her friends that they can’t just build the perfect man. Cue Jenny (our heartbroken woman) watching Frankenstein and forming a devilish plan.

One of the most enjoyable things about this collection is how it consistently kept me on my toes and kept me guessing at what was coming next. This, of all the stories, felt the safest to me. This story was perhaps the only one without that sense of mystery and I always felt like I was certain of where it was headed. It followed all the beats I expected it to and while the ending was satisfying enough it didn’t challenge me in the same way the other stories did.

FORMERLY FERAL

First of all, what a brilliant name for a story. Intriguing and honestly just quite fun to say. Thankfully, the story lives up to the name in its execution. A girl’s parents divorce, leaving her living with her dad and her sister living away with her mum. Her dad remarries the woman across the street, who has recently acquired a wolf as a pet. The sisters communicate through letters and as our main character adjusts to her new life, things become stranger and stranger. That is all I am going to say about this story plot-wise because it needs to be read to get the full effect.

It reminded me of Angela Carter’s short stories, due to its surreal exploration of families and the animal kingdom. The use of familial relationship and the exploration of what they really mean is engrossing from the first word to the last. I have reread it several times and take something different from it every single time. A beautiful, distinctive story.

STOP YOUR WOMEN’S EARS WITH WAX

In this story, the nation’s girls are captivated by a pop group to the point of being obsessive. The story is told from the perspective of Mona, who has been taken on tour with the band to film shows and the manic crowd, as they riot and take over cities in the name of love for the group. During all the chaos, a love story unfolds as Mona falls for one of the roadies, Ava.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Mona and Ava, the excitement and passion that they experience is tied into the fan’s obsession with the band and the music. However, the concept of this story felt underexplored and I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing, particularly during the ending. There is an intriguing idea here and the relationships that are presented are fascinating, but I think I needed a different resolution to the story. 

GRANITE

What a story this, a fascinating piece, written beautifully. After a life time of being picky, Maggie has finally found love, in who appears to be a good, honest man. We also meet the neighbour Mrs Lumis, who doesn’t seem anywhere near as keen on Maggie’s “Mr Gorgeous” as everybody else is, complaining he is too noisy, despite the fact that he appears to not move a muscle when he stays over. What unfolds is a Shakespearian tragedy, with the twists and turns to keep your emotions reeling and your attention completely engrossed.

The story never moves away from Maggie’s flat and yet we get a full picture of Maggie in the short time we get to spend with her. It is a wonderful dissection of what solitude means, particularly for a woman in her thirties, and how finding a partner can impact this. We see and feel the pressure she is put under to conform to her family and friend’s expectations of ‘finding love’ and the toll this takes on her. This story is my favourite in the book. It discusses love and intimacy in an incredibly real and relatable way. The ending left me devastated and yet still, I couldn’t help rereading it. Even if you aren’t going to read the whole book, you must read this story.

SMACK

In this story, Nicola has moved into her ex-husband’s beach house and is refusing to leave despite threats from lawyers. She is incapable of looking after herself, unable even to get the power working and yet doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, there are several mass stranding’s of jellyfish on the beach upon which the house sits, watched by Nicola from the decking.

This is another tragic story, although I didn’t find it as evocative as the Granite, perhaps since I was still recovering from the previous story while reading this one. Isolation is once again a key theme and the bitterness and anger felt by Nicola in her interactions with her sister, her ex-husband’s lawyer and the ex-husband himself are venomous and toxic. She is clearly a deeply troubled character, lost, lonely and without any real support.

This story certainly has merit. The symbolism of the jellyfish being stranded, piled up and burnt is executed wonderfully but again, this story suffers from the quality it is surrounded with. By no means a bad story, but not as effective as what came before.

CASSANDRA AFTER

The penultimate story explores grief, guilt and sexuality all through the neurotic musings of a Catholic. The main character is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her girlfriend Cassandra, who comes back from the grave and appears, rotting away in front of her eyes.

Through the rest of the story we learn that our character has struggled to understand her sexuality. One anecdote sees her hairdresser bemoaning the fact that her friend has “turned gay” and in another she kisses a man and thinks Cassandra won’t care.

Using Catholicism to explore grief and guilt is a great method, executed well. The fact that resurrection is a crucial part of the Catholic doctrine ties the whole story up in a neat little bow. The use of a haunting to explore the guilt and regret the main character associated with her sexuality is a masterstroke. As she reflects upon the mistakes she has made and how she could have done things differently, the rotting corpse of her deceased lover frames each error. This story has one of the most potent messages of the entire collection.

SALT SLOW

The final story of the collection is the piece which gives the book its name. A couple are stranded on a boat in a dystopian future in which the world has flooded and there is no more land. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where Julia Armfield got that idea from, but it is employed superbly. One of the characters is heavily pregnant, meaning that the fight for survival, for food and water is even more desperate.

Without spoiling the ending, what I can say is it is horrifying. The story crackles with tension and fear as the couple struggle to accept their situation, to find a reason to survive. The imagery used in the story has stuck with me so vividly since finishing, that whenever I allow my mind to drift, I find myself picturing the couple on their boat, drifting aimlessly, trying to escape their fate. The reluctant mother is a particularly fascinating character. Throughout the story, we find her trying to come to terms with the concept of raising a child, something she had struggled with even prior to the catastrophic events which have transpired.  The story ends beautifully and is the perfect way to finish the book.

CONCLUSION

As I hope is very clear from my breakdown of the stories, I adored this collection. Julia Armfield is a stunning talent and I cannot wait to read more of her work. The only thing stopping the collection from getting five stars is that a couple of the stories slightly, and I cannot emphasise that slightly enough, drop off in terms of the quality. As a whole collection, the exploration of loneliness, isolation, insecurity, sexuality and love is so refreshing and unique. I don’t think I have read anything else quite like it. The mixture of horror, comedy, mystery and so many other genres fused together, make each page a new and exciting adventure. It is a collection I am going to be buying for everyone I know, in order to show them the power and wonder of short stories. I recommend it to you completely and unreservedly.

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