‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’
Jarrett’s most successful stories, and the ones that burrow deepest under the skin, are those concerned with the ghostly traces we leave behind after we’re gone, like fingerprints on a windowpane. In Wish You Were Here, a haunting tale about mysterious messages from an unknown sender, the narrator shares this belief in spectral outlines; ‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’ Since the death of his elderly neighbour, he has been the recipient of blank postcards, which follow him from place to place and always contain the ‘start of a written message, abandoned before it had got under way.’ Jarrett is deliberately ambiguous about the suggestion of anything supernatural, and even when he spots a woman with the same face as his dead neighbour staring at him on a train, the narrator is dismissive of his own instinctive fear (‘Having said that, I acknowledge how the mind plays tricks’). However, there is something undeniably eerie about the premise, especially as some of the postcards contain pictures of ‘unbearable desolation’. The creep of enveloping, elemental nature is palpable, with the figures in the pictures reduced to pixels in an indifferent landscape; ‘they are composed of dots, just like the surroundings that overwhelm them…the elements triumph; there is no-one to be found.’
In Images from the Floating World, there is a similar sense of gradual disintegration; ‘Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way’. This story is typical of Jarrett’s style; seemingly about a charmingly eccentric butler-cum-valet and a set of wealthy grandparents who collect rare and valuable pornography, the dark heart of the narrative is only revealed in unsettling snapshots. The suggestion of abuse is always implied rather than explicit but this makes the confessional letter sent by the narrator’s sister before her death (‘At the end of the letter was an intriguing sentence: And then there were three – Diggory, Grandma and Lewis’) all the more disturbing for its suggestion of middle-class complicity. The narrator strains to understand the enormity of what befell his sister in the darkened corridors of their childhood home but finds the full picture of what happened is always ‘being spirited secretly out of reach’, although whether by delusion or deception is unclear.
Although the scope of his stories is ambitious and free-wheeling, Jarrett is the master of understatement. He depicts momentous, and occasionally horrific, events with a journalist’s wry eye for detail and a detached curiosity. In Christ, Ronnie, Christ, a pensive tale of trauma, failing memory and disconnect, a disturbing act of accidental voyeurism is told with such minimal embellishment that it is bordering on indifference. The first sentence of the story is stark in its simplicity; ‘Merrett once saw a woman leap to her death from a high cliff.’ He goes on to describe the apparent calmness before the moment of impact; ‘she strode smartly like a high-diver, leant forward at an impossible angle and plunged towards the river head first, bouncing off some protruding rocks and falling into the water with a brief, visible commotion, but no sound.’ This act of self-destruction is seen from a distance, with no context other than that dreamlike high dive, but I found that the image of the falling woman was seared into my consciousness despite its superficial tranquility and bloodlessness.
‘Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way’
There are many other stories in the collection which convey Jarrett’s lightness of touch and ability to transcend genres; the lingering sense of cultural dislocation in El Cid, the gentle pathos of Ziggurat, or the utter immersion in a specific time and place that comes as a result of reading Rhapsodie, an epistolary saga which spans decades and continents. However it’s A Weissman Girl that contains the description of a style of writing uncannily reminiscent of Jarrett’s own. This evocative tale of a writer and his disturbed wife living in rural isolation, like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald without the urban glamour, includes a passage where the narrator describes the reclusive writer’s particular style of storytelling: ‘its imaginative kite flight reigned in and let out by almost deadpan reportage, at turns strolling and hurrying.’ This is such an accurate description of Jarrett’s own understated style of writing that it almost feels deliberate. The fictional writer profiled in A Weissman Girl ‘tells the tale yet…deepens what’s told’; perhaps a reminder that subtlety and suggestion, Jarrett’s modus operandi in this collection, is sometimes more powerful than shock value.
If there is an image which Jarrett’s stories bring to mind, it would be a faded photograph; muted, shadowy and slightly blurred around the edges but all the more enticing for it. Although some of his stories are overstuffed and rather dense, (Miss Mercedes Gleitze comes to mind) and his narratives tend to meander frustratingly towards anti-climatic conclusions, Jarrett’s devastating subtlety in Wish You Were Here, Christ, Ronnie, Christ and A Weissman Girl will haunt you long after the final page has been turned. One of his narrators asserts that ‘So much dies of us when we die’, but many of the characters in these stories leave indelible traces which reach out to warp and stain the lives of others, like watermarks on a page.
About the Publisher:
Cultured Llama, which was originally established by Maria McCarthy and her husband Bob Carling in a converted stable, publishes poetry, short fiction and cultural non-fiction or, as the website intriguingly describes it, ‘curious things.’
Review by Katie Witcombe
Katie Witcombe is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.