Most stories I read flitter through my mind and then they are gone, and there are others that simply settle in and nest there forever. ‘Penguins’ is an example of the latter. It is wry, it is funny, and there is a dawning awareness that the nameless characters you are reading about are suffering a kind of muted pain: the sort of discomfort that shares a likeness with a deep bruise that is felt long before it is seen.
Williams’ debut short story collection is full of modern-day madness, the torments we put ourselves through to fit in, and the unwitting traumas we cause each other in our quest to belong somewhere, anywhere, even if it is only to ourselves.
In ‘Penguins’ we meet an unnamed twenty-nine-year-old woman, who, after suffering the frequent indignities of online dating, meets a man who is good with her friends, visits art galleries with her, and eventually tells her he loves her. Then one day he says they need to talk “About. Um. Sex.” and he proceeds to tell her that he wants her to dress up as a penguin and incubate some eggs. After an initially shocked and passive acceptance, she becomes obsessed with the specifics of what he would like her to do, seeking details that he either cannot or will not provide, until he eventually asks her to forget the whole thing. ‘Penguins’ is a delightfully absurdist glimpse of the compromises we make and passive-aggressive contortions we form to keep a relationship going, whether we are sure we want it or not. (HC)
Published in Treats, Freight Books, 2016
This is a story about “a girl who quits her job, her boyfriend, her flat and does a Creative Writing MA” only to find that she can only write about girls who quit the aforementioned to do Creative Writing MAs. It’s written in the second person, which I always love, and it has a kind of hopeless rhythm to it as the narrator consistently succeeds at nothing but mediocrity. It’s a story about gentle disappointments, about washing diazepam down with warm white wine and “thinking about the air.” If it sounds navel-gazey, that’s because it absolutely is – and I love it for that exact reason. Returning to the story to write this, I was shocked to discover that it – like many others in the collection – is incredibly short: just six pages, and it has left as lasting an impression on me as any novel. It reminds me of some of my favourite recent books about lost millennial women: The Idiotby Elif Batuman, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (in fact, everything by Sally Rooney), All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg and many of the stories from Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands.
Published in Treats, Freight Press, 2016
“Treats could save a person,” the protagonist in this story, Elaine, thinks. But her life is filled with empty pizza boxes, birthdays unacknowledged by those around her, a job making coffee and filing papers for others. Elaine tries to look on the bright side though: her pleasure when the man at the sandwich shop throws a French tart in her bag, the joy she gets from anonymously buying a cinema ticket for the young woman in the queue behind her. Still, you realise Elaine’s just scrunching up her eyes, not wanting to see how bad the big picture is. And because she is so deserving of something more, you find yourself wanting to scrunch your eyes up too. I came across ‘Treats’ in Best British Short Stories 2017 (it is also in Williams’ debut collection). This is the story that has stayed with me the most from this year’s anthology, hovering around like a vulture.
From Treats (Freight Books). Also available in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt). You can find Lara Williams’ website here