I was initially attracted to Chloe Turner’s debut collection by its cover. Such a lovely pared back image and once you’ve read what’s inside, you’ll find it’s entirely relevant, too. Witches Sail in Eggshells comprises seventeen short pieces – some just a couple of pages, others stretching over ten – all as smartly turned out as that jacket.
There’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ flavour to the opening story, ‘The Hagstone’, in which a pebble brought home by Leda’s sister enlivens her collection with sinister results. It’s hard to say whose behaviour is the worst in the lengthy ‘Piñata’, or perhaps the children are simply taking after their parents at eight-year-old Marlie’s birthday party. Shorter and more taut, ‘Inches Apart’ sees a woman whose marriage has dwindled, wondering if she’ll choose to see the evidence of her partner’s infidelity while in ‘Labour of Love’ – one of my favourites – a gardener finds first joy then surprising comfort in working her vegetable patch.
Many of Turner’s stories are about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents. ‘Show Me What You’re Made Of ‘ is a chilling, almost gothic, exploration of domestic violence and coercion while a thread of tension runs through ‘Collecting Her Thoughts on the Prison Steps’ as we wonder how things will end for a woman caught up in a controlling relationship. More cheeringly, a woman is brought face to face with one of her ex’s lovers when their sons become friends and is surprised at how she feels in ‘Waiting for the Runners’.
Grief, ageing, love and quiet heartbreak are also constants. There’s a lovely wistful tone to ‘The Day You Asked Me’ in which an old woman remembers the first time her childhood sweetheart asked her out on his boat, charting their lives until he asks again decades later. In ‘On Old Stones, Old Bones and Love ‘a glimpse of a young couple in love and her husband’s kindness in a crisis reminds an ageing woman of the passion and adventure they once shared.
All this is delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose:
As she knelt, loose stones made themselves comfortable in the soft tissue of her knees. (Labour of Love)
The stalk was furring like a baby rabbit’s pelt, and the smirking mouth was starting to pucker down at the edges, but I still felt it was laughing at me. (Waiting for the Runners)
It was late springtime when you asked me for the first time. The sun was young in the sky, untroubled by cloud, and there were jellyfish everywhere, shrugging and sagging their way through the pea green. (The Day You Asked Me)
Though there is something sad about her, a drooping wilt to her tall frame as if her roots might be too shallow. (The House with Three Stories That Might Be Five)
Dogs barked at them, and the octopuses would wave a tentacle back in disdain. (A Raft of Silver Corpses)