Salt Slow, Julia Armfield, Pan Macmillan, 2019, pp.208, £12.99 (hardback)

This electric, enthralling collection of short stories from Julia Armfield owns its influences upfront. In the first story ‘Mantis’, a teenage girl describes reading with her mother:

I choose Greek myths and ghost stories, tales that come in under fourteen pages and culminate in violent lessons. I read aloud and let her stop me when she wants to – stories of swans and spiders, bay trees, narcissi, girls transformed into monsters by rivals playing dirty.

It sets the tone for a debut which is crackling with echoes of old tales, but is wholly original in its approach. Everything from The Odyssey to Frankenstein bubbles up in these stories of transformation, love and horror.

Armfield uses these fantasy elements to unearth anxieties that feel modern. In the standout piece ‘The Great Awake’ – which won The White Review’s short story competition in 2018 – a city is beset with insomnia as sleeps detach from the residents like Peter Pan’s shadow. It is blamed on “phones and social media, twenty-four-hour culture, anxiety disorders in the under-eighteens” and other aspects of 21st century urban living. We are never given a clear answer, leaving us to project our own neuroses onto the sleeps just as the city’s residents do.

Metamorphoses also lend themselves well to stories about teenagers. Both ‘Mantis’ and ‘Formerly Feral’ feature female narrators whose bodies are changing in more than just the usual way. As part of each mutation violent impulses emerge, ending badly for the boys who take an uninvited interest in them. Young women are prepared to bite back in Salt Slow. This destructive rage comes to a head in ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’ as a girlband’s adolescent fans commit maenad-like acts of violence.

Other stories explore love and the seeming impossibility of it lasting. In ‘Granite’, a woman in her late 20s finally finds a man after years of nagging from her friends. But she knows from the start that loving him is bound to hurt him. It seems to address some of the same anxieties as Sophie Mackintosh’s 2018 novel The Water Cure, with both questioning whether relationships between men and women can exist without pain through literal manifestations.

Love and pain come up again in ‘Cassandra After’, as a woman’s girlfriend rises from the dead and turns up at her door. The depiction of the protagonist’s struggles to be open about her sexuality and her subsequent guilt over this fact is deftly handled and makes the story a stellar example of what can be achieved in just a few thousand words.

Armfield’s writing is addictive. Part of its power is in a careful use of those tricky twin beasts: adjectives and adverbs. The narrator of ‘The Great Awake’ notices their neighbour’s beauty in a “guilty thieving way”. The sleepless nights are “strange-hued, liver-coloured”. She also has a tendency to extend sentences by piling them up. ‘Smack’, the story of a woman watching huge numbers of jellyfish wash ashore as she contemplates the breakdown of her marriage, begins: “The jellyfish come with the morning – a great beaching, bodies black on sand.”

Or in ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’, a member of a rock band’s tour crew watches the fans queuing for a concert: “Mona watches them hop from foot to foot, sharing chewing gum, straggle of autumn in their summer haircuts.”

It gives the collection a delicious, languid air. This is prose you want to eat up in one go. But these hallmarks come off better in some of the stronger stories and can be a little repetitive in some of the others.

With its fantastical edge, Salt Slow is reminiscent of Angela Carter and Karen Russell. The collection announces its author as an exciting talent with the ability to carry off bold concepts. It is also, importantly, an immensely enjoyable read.

Words by Alys Key.
To buy Salt Slow, visit Pan Macmillan.

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