‘The Great Awake’ by Julia Armfield

The most unheimlich you can get, really. The new Angela Carter, I told a friend. Far better, she replied. I read it in 2018 after it won The White Review short story prize and wished immediately—in a way you do when you come across a great piece of writing—that I had first struck upon this lush idea of an insomniac plague of dissociative, wraith-like creatures. I doubt, all the same, that there is anyone else who could have written this story with the kind of imaginative gusto that is Julia Armfield’s rare gift. It works through echoes and resonances, revealing, through what Armfield calls in an interview “a wolf on the dining table”, the many wolves we have on each our dining tables, lurking in our rooms. For a few days after reading the story I got into a habit of imagining what good my sleep, were it to step off my body “like a passenger from a carriage”, would be up to at cafes, libraries, lecture halls, by my bed at night. One day, I swear, I think I even saw it—sitting on my desk, marking exam papers.

First published in The White Review in April 2018, and available to read here; collected in Salt Slow, Picador, 2020

‘Formerly Feral’ by Julia Armfield

The bond between sisters is a strange and complex thing, explored from every possible angle in literature, and yet Armfield manages something utterly original in ‘Formerly Feral’. The protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl. When her parents divorce she remains living with her father, whilst her mother leaves and takes her older sister. Her father swiftly marries a woman who has adopted a wolf, and is raising that wolf, named Helen, as a daughter – from then on the girl and the wolf are effectively treated as sisters. 

The day they moved in, she dressed the wolf in a blue pinafore dress she described as its special occasions outfit and presented me with a copy, in my size, which my father suggested I change into before helping with the unpacking.’ I love this story for so many reasons: its sumptuous language, the hypnotic pace of Armfield’s writing; but most of all I adore the humour with which she confronts the savagery of female adolescence. There is much to be made about a creature with base instincts and desires being scrubbed with perfumed soaps and forced to blend into a world it has never asked to be a part of! (HC)

First published in Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, Picador, 2020. Available to read online at Electric Lit here

‘Mantis’ by Julia Armfield

aving a teenage body is a strange thing. There’s something peculiar in the sudden awareness of yourself, of how you move, how you look, feel, smell, which is never replicated. There’s something especially peculiar when your body, in particular, is transforming in different ways to the other teenagers around you. ‘Mantis’ perfectly captures this feeling, and then amps it up, by having something truly unusual happen. Julia Armfield’s bodies – throughout this entire collection – flip the idea of how we see monstrosity and what is monstrous, with such talent that I was squirming and cheering in equal measure. 

First published in Neon 48, Spring 2018. Collected in Salt Slow, Picador, 2019

‘The Great Awake’ by Julia Armfield

In the cities, sleep has somehow mutated from a habit into an entity. We don’t know why, but it is no longer an activity. Instead it has become, for each individual, another individual, sharing their life, sharing their rooms, not entirely real, not entirely a haunting. Everyone has a Sleep. They’re “always tall and slender”. They don’t do much, though they’re prone to strangely inept gestures, some compulsive behaviour, some of it bad. Nobody can sleep since their Sleep got a life of its own, but they try to continue as normal and the world doesn’t seem to be changing much as a result. All of this is told from a thoughtful distance, as if only very calm observation can separate the problem from hysteria and allow it to be stated, let alone understood. “People in my building,” the narrator records, “stopped sleeping at a rate of about one a night.” You can’t quite tell if her equanimity reflects a style of thought or simple dreaminess, the result of the deprivation now forced on everyone. Or perhaps not everyone. The narrator’s friend Leonie still sleeps, and it is making her desperate. No one but Leonie wants their Sleep; no one but Leonie wants to be insomniac. She feels left out. “The Great Awake” won The White Review Short Story Prize in 2018, so everyone probably knows about it already.

First published in The White Review, 2018. Collected in Salt Slow, Picador, May 2019