Although I’ve long since been converted to reading short story collections, I still prefer the linked variety. There’s something appealing about spotting characters from previous pieces, particularly in a small town setting, which is what attracted me to Cathy Thomas’ Islanders set on Guernsey. Comprising twelve stories set over two decades beginning in 2000, it follows a group of young people for whom ‘the rock’ is both home and a place to escape.
She’d lived in Leeds, Manchester, London. Places Goody had only seen on the news
The collection opens with Good for a Laugh, setting the scene as a group of friends play with fire, plundering a local drug dealer’s stash for something to take to a party from which Paul scoops up his drunken sister Josie, her first time at what is a regular event for him. Daily Specials sees fifteen-year-old Annie ready to lose her virginity if it means she’ll be welcomed back by her partying friends who’ve set Paul up for the job but the evening ends with a different sort of drama. In A Word for It a snide remark from her physiotherapy nurse suggesting her daughter’s promiscuity leads a single mother to take a surprising decision. Fast forward almost a decade to Liberation Day when Eva, briefly home visiting family, catches the eye of Goody, the island’s lothario, determined to seduce her and deeply unsettled when she’s not interested. Mein Herr sees a closeted headteacher interrupting two male pupils having sex, brought up short by the feelings he’d suffocated on this island where homosexuality was illegal until not so very long ago. Real Nice brings those boys back together, one now a drug dealer the other a well-heeled client, both unwilling to admit their past. The Lure, the collection’s final story, brings Paul and Josie back together again, sharing lunch in London – Paul still living on Guernsey, Josie now a solicitor for whom the island is far too parochial. When it becomes apparent she’s been less than honest about her roots, Paul’s upset makes her think twice.
It was hard to stop being the person you were at school when everyone you went to school with still lived in the same place
Those seven are my favourites from a collection which hangs together beautifully as characters cross each other’s paths over the decades; some friends, others trying to turn their backs on a difficult past, all knowing far more about each other than is often comfortable. Thomas has a sharp eye for character backed up by a pithy wit and a compassionate understanding. Guernsey has all the familiar features of small town life exaggerated by its island status. Everyone knows everybody else’s business, gossip is rife, boredom a feature of life with escapes made into partying and loyalties are fierce. The ‘rock’ will always be home for many but for others a taste of the outside world leads to a more permanent departure. I enjoyed Thomas’ stories very much. Astute, shrewd, funny and dark, Islanders is a collection that will stay with me for some time.
Virago Books: London 9780349016283 224 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)