Book review: Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams

The first thing I learned on day one of my English degree: no work of fiction exists in a vacuum. Directly or indirectly, texts are the product of other texts. Attrib. and other stories is no different, though its apparent choice of source material is somewhat unexpected. Forget great novels, Biblical verse, Classical epics – Eley Williams’ writing seems to have been inspired by the dictionary.

Attrib. and other stories is an unashamed love letter to words, to sounds and their meanings. A woman learns to cope with aphasia (defined in-text as a mental “disturbance of the comprehension and formulation of language”); another attempts to prove her love by taking a song from Oliver! to its literal extremes. The title story follows the day in the life of a freelance Foley artist, attempting to capture the perfect sound to add to an audio guide of Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve.

This is a collection of thoughtful, character-driven pieces. At 169 pages long, its 17 stories are all quick reads; most come in at around 10 pages, while two are a mere 4 pages long. Yet in spite of their brevity (or perhaps because of it), these stories are packed with intensely meaningful, poetic prose. There are sentences that jar with the unexpected (“I was in the process of trying to forget you when I noticed the men and women on Platform One in the background”). Others effortlessly, beautifully roll through characters’ thoughts:

I simply forgot the way that love becomes a whimsy and the full-throttle of throats, the buzz of flightless eyelashes against pillowcases on a winter’s evening when pigeons grow full-fat against the frost and the letter in the word receipt begins ticking at the clocked teeth […]

Attrib. and other stories by Eley WilliamsWilliams’ characters span a wide breadth of experiences, yet are united in sharing a drive to find clarity in their lives. Often, their attempts take the form of dictionary-style definitions; take this example from opening story “The Alphabet”:

The plot, yes – the condition of its being lost. I have a great deal of nostalgia for having a plot and a full vocabulary. Both have been lost gradually, along with the – what is it – marbles. My marbles, specifically. We have come to specific marbles. I have lost it – I have lost my marbles, and I have lost the plot – the Holy Trinity of losing […]

If I’m honest, I tend to prefer more literal, plot-driven short stories, and as beautiful as Williams’ thoughtful style is, I sometimes lost myself within the words her characters seek to define.

Yet, while Attrib. and other stories isn’t necessarily “my” type of collection, I fully recognise its brilliance. Like the meaning that her characters so often seek, Williams’ collection elides neat definition. This is a collection seemingly inspired by a dictionary, yet composed in sentences that border on pure poetry – exactly the kind of unusual, exciting book that indie publishers like Influx Press excel at producing.

Attrib. and other stories – a few of my favourites:

Attrib. An engaging speaker with a mundane, yet impossible challenge: how to capture the sound of Eve’s creation using household materials. In other words, a typical task for a Foley artist.
Bulk When a whale carcass washes up on the beach as dawn breaks, an assorted collection of passers-by stop to discuss what to do with it. Narrated by a character who assures the reader early on that “[i]n many ways I am not a reliable witness.”
Spines A day in the life of a family staying at their summer home in France, adjusting to the unexpected appearance of a hedgehog swimming around in their pool.

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