Short story collections have traditionally been a hard sell in the UK. Unlike publishers in the US – where short pieces have long been a key part of the literary culture – companies in the British book industry have tended to focus almost exclusively on novels, with only well-known writers getting deals to release assortments of shorter works.
In recent years, particularly since short-form writers Lydia Davis and Alice Munro scooped the Man Booker International Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature respectively in 2013, things have started to change. Last year, the Telegraph newspaper reported that, according to the Bookseller, short-story sales had risen by 35%. And where sales figures lead, publishers tend to follow.
If anyone needed further evidence of the power and value of short stories, The Well of Trapped Words by Turkish writer Sema Kaygusuz makes a compelling case. Peopled with outcasts, misfits, trauma survivors and eccentrics, the collection makes for arresting reading. From the tale of the mentally disturbed girl whose self-loathing focuses itself on her feet, to the account of the old man driven into a frenzied search for water after years of drought, the pieces pit characters against the norms of their communities, rattling propriety’s cage.
The brevity of many of the tales allows Kaygusuz to write with an intensity that might be difficult to sustain – and to read – over longer stretches. Revealing how emotion seeps into and colours the world, tainting sight, taste and smell, she captures moments of crisis vividly. A particular favourite of mine is this description of the moment before a woman boiling fruit in her kitchen realises a snake is about to bite her toddler in ‘The Viper’s Son’:
And this is when the whole world went silent.
The whole world. Even the birds stopped singing. Standing over the plums, Zilver suddenly noticed that the only sound she could hear was their bubbling.
There are also impressive longer pieces, often portraying an emotional reversal and frequently exploring gender politics. For example, two of the strongest stories, ‘Stolen’ and ‘Deep Inside’, delineate a devastating shift in relationship dynamics, in both cases leaving the men bewildered as the women they thought of as theirs assume control.
The precision of the language in many of the pieces is striking – and here praise must go to translator Maureen Freely too. My copy is riddled with pencil marks picking out phrases that distil a complex truth or emotion into a small cluster of words – the feeling of ‘regrets steaming inside me, and somehow, strangely, washing me clean’, for example, or the description of ‘a girl whose life is fading at the creases. Its multi-coloured fabric […] fast unravelling’.
There is also a winning streak of wit and irreverence in the writing, as when the narrator of ‘Tacettin’ tells the reader that the title character had ‘a neck twice the size of yours and maybe five times the size of mine’. I don’t know about you, but I think this is the first time a book has called me fat.
Sometimes the structure lets the writing down a little. While a few too many of the stories rely on the device of a final section told from another perspective to tie up the loose ends, a number feel a little loose and meandering. In addition, passing references to political figures and events in a couple of the pieces may prove trip hazards to readers not familiar with Turkey’s history (although the smattering of footnotes do help smooth the path).
All in all, though, The Well of Trapped Words is a testament to the power of storytelling. By turns funny, alarming, familiar and strange, this collection will surprise, challenge and delight. Hats off to Comma Press for publishing a work not only in a genre but also from a language that has traditionally been underrepresented on British shelves.
The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Comma Press, 2015).