‘The Ground Is Considerably Distorted’ by Ruby Cowling

This is a story I particularly wanted to include, but which has now become very topical, even more than when it was written well before 2019 although set in 2020. In fact I wondered if I should leave it out, because it involves an earthquake – in Japan – and a damaged nuclear reactor, presumably as a result, coinciding with a conference in Zurich on increasing world dependency on nuclear energy, and a Westminster scandal over remarks about the effects of the earthquake by the wife of the Foreign Secretary.

A heady mix, and what’s so extraordinary about the story is the structure and the multiple stranding: the first-person narrative of a young female Japanese journalist now in London to cover the political scandal, told partly in her Twitter feeds – one her journalist account, the other her personal account; live television news feed from Westminster; the texted conversation between the Foreign Secretary and his wife, even within their home; a third-person narrative of the scandal from the wife’s point of view.

It could have been a gimmick, it could have gone horribly wrong – although Boiler House have done a brilliant job with the layout, which clarifies it considerably. In fact, it’s virtuosic writing of a very high standard, fully under control, riveting on every level – human, domestic, political. Rereading it has induced an even greater twinge of envy, and I had to include it despite the current bad timing.

First published in Lighthouse, collected in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘Mating Week’ by Ruby Cowling

All of Ruby’s work is precious to me. We share the same tiny publisher, and I think that simple fact, which has no material bearing on anything, has made me always read her work more closely than other writers. It’s a trivial connection, but I treasure it. Especially because she is so phenomenal in the short form. Mating Week is about a character wrestling with the idea of losing her solitude. It’s a moving, beautifully rendered story, with the fragility of life and also moth life fluttering there all the time. I am including this particular story because of a moment I love, when the main character has returned from a date. It has not been a disastrous date, but she isn’t sure. So before going into the house, she sits in her car. And while she sits in her car, she enjoys feeling that absolutely nobody anywhere knows where she is or what she’s thinking. I search for this exact feeling about 10 times a week. Just for the moment of it, just for the space to think. Even as it’s happening, I hope I am not alone in doing this. And then I remember this story, and of course I am not.  

Published in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘On Day 21’ by Ruby Cowling

This Paradise is one of my favourite short story collections of recent years. When I was a judge for the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize, I wanted to champion her book for the long/shortlist – but unfortunately Boiler House Press were disqualified from entering, since UEA were the prize’s sponsor. Like many of Cowling’s stories, it wrongfoots and disorientates the reader. It starts out as a satire on our dependence on gadgets, focusing on a busy mother who has succumbed to technology and is able to switch her children on/off when they become too demanding. On a trip to a supermarket, she finds the switch no longer seems to work, perhaps due to overuse. In her subsequent panic, she wonders if it ever existed at all, so that we’re left uncertain whether we’re reading a sci-fi satire or the account of a mental breakdown.

First published in Wasafari, 2017 and available to read here; collected in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘This Paradise’ by Ruby Cowling

This story moves along with Cowling’s characteristic elegance towards a quietly dramatic end. I like the crisp prose and careful though unobtrusive analysis of family life in the lead up to an expected hurricane. There are some lovely cool observations dissecting the professional (academic?) couple within family life including their disinclination to shelter their gardener who faces the same force of the storm. These is a distance in their connection to their environment and towards their sons, a kind of heartlessness which the narrator, the children’s nanny or au pair, picks up. As she strains to maintain an equilibrium. I love the sense of the landscape in which the family live, which evokes their vulnerability.

First published in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019