Treats by Lara Williams: Freight Books, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize short list*

Alazia is the fear that you are no longer able to change.

In this debut collection of short stories, Lara Williams beautifully captures relatable, disillusioned, yet wistfully hopeful characters, often on the cusp of adulthood, looking over the edge and hoping not to fall, but fly. These characters traipse through a daunting landscape of entangled relationships, problematic life choices, the “controlled explosions” and negotiations of love, and the harsh realities of what can only be described as “settling”– of letting go of childhood dreams and infinite possibilities – as one day university ends and suddenly “It Begins”; the unnerving stage in which one is left to flounder and learn how to paddle once more. On the other hand, many of the characters demonstrate a propensity for going against the grain in quiet protest at “settling”, with little daily rebellions against the unfair world of “morning people,” those who are careless, judge others, or want to place individuals in a box. The reader hears the screaming thoughts from minds not content with conformity nor a life already mapped out and ready for one to simply join the dots. These are the stories of the unsettled, trying to settle for a life not quite the way it was imagined.

Triumph over adversity, life felt like a series of small battles, of smaller wins, twisting and mutating, always, into something else.

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“Treats” becomes a misleading, sceptical, almost mocking title, as these characters are often far from treating themselves or being treated right by others. The short story entitled “Treats” follows the musings of a woman “imagining the world fluent in a silent language of kindness”, a tender thought, but one that she seems forever excluded from, never receiving this kindness in return. She endearingly surprises others with little acts of anonymous kindness, like buying another’s cinema ticket or cup of coffee, and yet she lives in a world populated by those who are careless towards her. In the end she treats herself, a lesson we might all learn from – rather than expecting to be treated right by others, we should learn to treat ourselves right first.

Life, Ray had decided, was exchanging one type of chaos for another.

Williams’ female characters express the “gender melancholia” of a young generation, as Morag states, “We got that wrong,’ […] ‘we got food wrong. We got sex wrong. We’re the generation that got a lot of stuff wrong.’” A generation of desperate choices – “Pilates and Prozac?” – when “it feels like it is raining, everywhere, inside.” These characters live in quiet discontent as their minds dance around daydreams and thoughts that never reach the surface, let alone become communicated to others. Williams’ embeds beautiful poetic reflections amongst the mundane daily rituals of people trying to live. In an understated, often witty and subtle way, the female characters grapple with a thematic undercurrent of feminist issues and concerns, in which one character relays the question posed to her as she remembers how she would “say things to Dora, treat her in a certain way and you would ask, would I do this differently if she were a boy? The answer, invariably, was yes.” The conclusion is that “Girls grew up afraid”, particularly afraid of taking up space, and in the twenty-first century this is still the case. These stories are filled with small triumphs, as the characters indulge in reclaiming their space, mainly in private, and relishing the treats they find for themselves.

Throughout these twenty-one stories I hear the fragments of characters who are desperate to live and feel alive again, finding themselves in moments of questioning in which they reflect and realise that the life they have lived so far is not the one they wish to continue living. In “Here’s to You”, Williams amusingly captures the fed up, exasperated feeling one has when they have reached a suspiciously unsolid rock bottom, unsure as to whether there is further to fall or not. Aahna is attempting to piece her life back together, living at her mother’s after the break-up of her previous relationship and the gradual dissolution of her life. After an awkward, yet not entirely unsuccessful date, she finds herself pondering:

She didn’t know what she wanted and she never had; her wants extended everywhere, inside and out, up and down; an undulating blob of non-specific desire.

What the hell did she want? What did anyone?

She sighed the long sigh of a life of never quite being enough.

 And sometimes these characters, with a refreshing honesty and all too familiar state of mind, just have to hope that the phrase “Sling enough shit at the wall and something’s got to stick” is true. They all suffer from the dreaded state of “alazia” and wonder what is truly enough for them; always wanting more. If I had any complaint as a reader, it is that I too desire more – I want to know more about these characters and continue reading more; the stories connect intricately through their use of certain images, phrases and character traits, which makes this collection such an enriching read. The little treat of momentarily viewing these characters’ lives, like a fly on the wall, stayed with me, almost as a relief that I am not the only one who’s trying to figure things out and is still not quite there. I recommend treating yourself to this collection.

About the Publisher:

Freight Books is an independent publisher focused on high quality fiction for an English speaking readership, committed to publishing work by established writers, brilliant debuts, short story collections, forgotten classics, occasional novels-in-translation and, from time to time, poetry collections.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing. 

 

*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017.  The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland.  The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses.  The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.

 

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