They say good things come in small packages. Sometimes, good reads come in slim paperbacks.
I picked up a second-hand copy of Some New Ambush on a whim. At a mere 108 pages long, this short story collection is certainly one of my shortest reads of the year – shorter than both Penguin Modern Poets 3 and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From. I had not heard of Carys Davies before I found this debut collection of her short stories, published by indie publishers Salt.
Like her collection, Davies’ stories tend to be quite brief, and are filled with a gentle building of mundane, small details that carry you, gently, into entirely new realities: an island that knows only the colour red, the quiet despair of the parents of a kidnapped child. Within just a few sentences, you know the story, and your place within it – and then comes the twist. Davies is the master of the twist. Her stories turn on a word, on a sentence. They are crisp, clever, and, more often than not, achingly satisfying.
Not every story landed for me. For example, the opening story, “Hwang,” centres on the eponymous owner of a dry cleaning business whose eccentricities are observed from a distance by the (presumably) white, affluent, older female protagonist and her friend. The story is well-written – in it, you encounter the first of Davies’ exquisite twists – but in spite of the title, Hwang is presented only distantly, as an exotic, Asian curiosity whose main purpose is to indirectly provide the protagonist with the means to exact petty revenge. The whole story felt decidedly uncomfortable, and, having recently finished The Fortunes, I couldn’t help but draw links between the commentary in Peter Ho Davies’ book and the Davies’ use of the character as an insubstantial plot device.
Go beyond this opener, however, and you will find a assortment of absorbing, brilliantly evoked snippets of fiction. Tragedy and comedy abound in Some New Ambush, and it’s a testament to Davies’ skill that she can play with both so well, adeptly turning her hand to both a real-life Welsh mining disaster and the satisfying comeuppance of an ousted Latin teacher.
Indeed, my favourite piece is a perfect blend of the two. In barely a page and a half, “Homegoing, 1909” sets up and delivers an exquisite and totally unexpected twist that is at once a disaster for the speaker and a laugh-out-loud punchline to the reader. Given its brevity, I wouldn’t want to spoil the impact of this particular story by quoting or summarising it; I’m afraid you’ll just have to pick up a copy of Some New Ambush and read it for yourself.
Opening story notwithstanding, I really did love this debut collection; I wish it could have gone on for another 108 pages, as I found myself craving more of those superb twists of hers as soon as I put the book down. It’s fair to say that Some New Ambush is up there with my favourite short story collections of the year, and I’m excited to pick up more of Davies’ work in the near future.
Some New Ambush – a few of my favourites:
Gingerbread Boy – Five years after a young boy goes missing, his parents and the police create a photofit of how they imagine he would now look.
Homecoming, 1909 – A sailor sees a woman for the first time in months when his ship sails into port. “I knew at once that all was lost.”
Pied Piper – A woman finds a baby while out searching for cockles on the beach, as related by her neighbours years later.