Londoners will recognise and love this ode to human experience, while others get a glimpse behind the scenes, beyond the marketed double-decker Big Ben dream, to the diverse perspectives, priorities and perceptions it expresses. Jaq Hazell expertly captures a range of differing voices in this collection of twenty-one short stories.
Ready, go: I launched myself in the same direction, flying free, warm from running, the cold air no longer bothered me. Everything went, all my worries: the dyslexia; my kid brother’s disability and Mum’s struggle with cash. Nothing mattered at that moment. I was floating, flying, running in the sky, cold air repelled by the fire of my all new, hard won, athlete’s physique.
From parkour to euthanasia; from sexual predators to finding a dead body in your yard; from accidental heroism to hereditary predilections towards infidelity; the range of subjects covered in these stories is vast, while each story on its own is a subtle snapshot of quotidian life. They combine to create a chorus of distinctly different voices, echoing the bustling murmur of London’s public spaces. Dipping into this book while in transit, I often catch myself wondering what my companions’ stories are; Hazell has explored this with deft skill in this collection.
Years before, when the Boxing Day Tsunami hit Thailand and Indonesia and other parts of Asia, Becky had questioned whether or not she would have recognised the danger? She assumed that, had she been there, she would not. And that she would have been one of the tourists walking out to sea across the exposed seabed, marvelling at the shells and starfish stranded in the wet sand as the almighty wave pulled further and further back gathering its strength.
The first story, about a pair of youths free-running over the rooftops of London, was a bright splash of excitement and adrenaline. While some of the other stories were not quite as exciting, I felt that each one was a nuanced and subtle facet of a whole. The stories can stand on their own. However, they are much more effective together, as they take the reader through a wide range of emotions, enabling us to see inside the lives of people whose life experiences differ wildly from our own, or perhaps mirror our own, and with whom it is easy to sympathise.
A woodpecker taps sight unseen, while brilliant green parakeets – one, two, three, no five – make their ugly chirping sound. Through the woodland walk we follow a path to a clearing where the woody browns give way to a lush green hill, hundreds of daffodils and a dark pond with swans. Youngest daughter kneels at the edge, poking a stick to test the depth.
Hazell’s style is straight-forward and down to earth; she evokes the textures, smells, sounds and colors of London without overly-florid linguistic arabesques. Instead, she speaks with the voice of ordinary people. I found it very accessible, and by adopting the inner voice of each character, the writing took on a great diversity in styles, such as the distracted, abbreviated, dialogue-focused perceptions of teenage girls, the haughty self-promoting tones of a climbing socialite, the subdued self-doubt of a neglected wife, or the disjointed and jumbled stream of consciousness of an elderly woman. It was, for me, the most effective part of the book; not what was happening, but how each voice responded to it.
A blistering Technicolor show reel flashes through her white head: age four – there she is in Brixton, South London, on the freshly-scrubbed doorstep with her favourite doll – age eight and her mother is scolding her for “stealing” a coin – “I found it”. Age ten – she finds Grandma Nell dead in her chair. And there’s the radio in the front room – the outbreak of war. She’s 19 and that means Stan. He catches her eye the first time they meet – “I live for the day,” she tells him.
Hazell sets out to capture the voice of a city, and she succeeds marvelously. Her characters are human, realistic and identifiable. The events they deal with, their day-to-day problems, and the great crises of their lives are everyday occurrences, and so they are more relatable than something a little more fantastic. The stories are carefully crafted, often with most of the action or drama happening outside of the brief window we get into the protagonists’ lives, but with an intense (and yet subtly crafted) build-up in the stories themselves. Some of the stories deeply upset me; I take the ability to move me to that extent as a sign of excellent writing.
Jane said the world had never looked sharper: the grass was greener, the newborn lambs more adorable, the sun never more welcome. She felt alive – more than she had for two years. I opened up her arms and placed them round me to create the semblance of a reciprocated hug. It moved her.
At first I was not sure what I thought of this book. It reminded me a little of Ivan Vladislavic’s The Exploded View. It is so understated that at times it almost verges on dull; however, after a few hours of letting the stories mentally marinate, I realised what a profound emotional effect they had had, and how cleverly Hazell had captured the voices of such a wide range of people. Some of the best writing is that in which the artistry is almost invisible; Hazell has stripped away the artifice and pretentiousness of literary fiction, instead producing something pure, genuine, accessible and extemely moving.