With her slim volume of short stories, Angela Readman helps to make the point that while novels can be fine wines that one might enjoy, a bottle at a time, but maybe spread over more than one meal, short stories are the pure spirit distilled with care, to be sipped, one at a time and spread over a short time so as to enjoy each to its fullest extent. Don’t Try This At Home is twelve shots of 100% proof and each will leave you mildly euphoric, transported to different worlds at the edge of reality. It is truly worth the journey.
In the title story, a girl chops her boy-friend in half with a spade, expecting to double her pleasure. That doesn’t quite work so she goes for four boy-friends/husbands each of whom, although the same, seems to develop different aspects of his personality. In a few years, she gets the spade out again!
Each story starts from a single idea, and if the reader suspends his or her belief for the first couple of paragraphs then that idea becomes a ‘given’; there are no other worlds for the duration of the story. Several of them inhabit the (sur)real world of childhood where only selected physical laws and truths are necessary . The Keeper of the Jackalopes is quickly revealed as the narrator’s father.
The best bit is the bit that used to scare her. Once the skin had been removed, the rabbit lies on the table without its bunny suit on. It can be anything it wants. Clary strokes the cool fur. The bench is covered in wire and wood wool. The pieces are all laid out. Her father stares at the clay skull with a finger on his chin, ready to put the rabbit back together again. Clary watches him, recalling when there weren’t any rabbits, only jackalopes popping up like magic. He’d cover each with a box until it was perfect. Then she’d lift the cardboard. There it was. The jackalope. Antlers, ears, rabbity whiskers almost twitching on her fingers. It looked like it was about to hop off, and got frozen with the horizon in its eyes.
Relish the situation of a childhood memory recalled. Admire Readman’s short sentences that sustain the tension. Read to the end of the story and lie down, have a cup of coffee or even go out for a brisk walk while the transitory effects of her story permeate your system before slowly wearing off. Aspects of it will, however, have entered your psyche. Then open another one; say Boys like Dolls. The boy narrator inhabits his own world.
Nathan’s GI Joe is his friend, sort of. There’s a scar on his cheek he won’t talk about. Nathan touches the smooth plastic welt. Joe spits.
‘Women love it, son. Don’t let anyone tell you a man can’t be someone with a scar. Scars are what we are.’
Nathan nods. This is exactly the sort of thing Joe always says.
In those few opening words, a whole childhood is (re)created. Unless you’ve had yours surgically removed, these opening sentences have transported you back to when you would thump anyone (smaller than you) who called your Action Man a doll.
Each one of these twelve stories is a gem: imaginative, original, polished and word perfect. No wonder the author won the Short Story Award in the Costa Book Awards in 2013 for The Keeper of the Jackalopes and was shortlisted the year before for the title story. And it gets better! This is her first collection. We have more to look forward to. Once again & Other Stories has picked a winner.