Tag Archives: Epoque Press

The Wooden Hill by Jamie Guiney: Stairway to heaven?

Cover imageJamie Guiney’s collection first caught my eye at What Cathy Read Next. It was its striking jacket that snagged my attention, perfectly fitting its theme with four figures of different ages making their way up a staircase towards a halo although several of Guiney’s characters are more likely to be travelling downwards towards a rather different destination. Comprising eighteen stories – some lengthy, others just a few pages – Guiney’s brief collection offers snapshots of life’s different stages, from an early arrival to a much mourned end.

The Wooden Hill opens with a father remembering his daughter’s happily anticipated birth in ‘We Knew You Before You Were Born’. ‘Summer Stories’ captures the dogged determination of a six-year-old intent on accumulating a collection of carefully selected stones, rudely interrupted by kindly adult concern while in ‘Peas’, a young boy waits for Santa on Christmas Eve only a little disconcerted by what he’s overheard through his older brothers’ bedroom door.  ‘The Cowboy’ sees a bout of scrumping launch a boy into a lifetime of dishonesty and in ‘A Woman Named Celie’ the antics of a dog provide distraction at his master’s funeral to the relief of the congregation and the disgust of the priest. A veteran pins his medal to his new Harris Tweed suit and marches smartly through his village, the sounds of long ago battle in his head in ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’ as the collection approaches its end.

Guiney has chosen a very appealing theme for his collection whose tone is often engagingly intimate. There’s a healthy streak of humour running through these stories, some of it a little slapstick – the pipe-smoking dog was an amusing if surreal turn – some of it dark. His characters are well drawn but it’s his writing that I found most impressive: clean and plain yet often poetic in its descriptions. Here are a few favourite quotes:

But we knew you before you were born. Felt this powerful connection from our hearts to yours, like an invisible spindle of silk

Out in the barley, you catch the flicker of a giant stork lifting off, the majesty of its spread wings pushing off against the blue

It is like winter has crawled inside me and decided to rest out the other three seasons

She’d watch his rugby matches every weekend and hug him as he came off the field no matter how wet or muddy or sometimes even bloody he was. Now he did nothing and his body had sagged like a baked apple

I stand beside Dad. As we sing the hymn, his body shakes. Trying with all its might to cry. Trying with all its might not to cry

Altogether an enjoyable collection, both eloquent and moving in its portrayal of the human condition.

The Groundsmen by Lynn Buckle: A Greek tragedy of a novel

Cover imageBack in May I reviewed Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, the first publication from époque press, with which I was very impressed. Lynn Buckle’s novel is their second and could not be more different. Not that it isn’t impressive but whereas El Hacho was a timeless, fable-like novella written in clean, spare prose, The Groundsmen explores a supremely dysfunctional family telling their story in their own voices. It’s like having a nest of angry wasps in your head.

Louis and Cally have two daughters, both named after characters who people the Greek myths in which Cally takes refuge to escape her powder keg of husband. Louis looks to his brother Toby to keep him order. They spend much of their time together, even working for the same firm where Louis has carved out a role for himself as a techie. Only Toby grasps the full horror of what happened to Louis when he was a child, having been subjected to the same abuse by Uncle Brown, the groundsman. Both men have perpetuated the cycle, but whereas Toby has a semblance of adult responsibility, Louis careers from crisis to crisis, deeply embroiled in a torment of denial, misogynistic sexual fantasy and self-absorption. When Toby is made redundant amidst rumours of ‘inappropriate’ material found on his computer, Louis fears he may not be far behind, wrapping himself in his usual denial until he is asked to return all his electronic devices. As things begin to unravel even further for Louis, Cally realises she must break out of her stupor for the sake of her children. Meanwhile, five-year-old Cassie escapes her fractured family by turning herself into a dog in her head while fourteen-year-old Andi takes the more dangerous route of finding a boyfriend online.

Buckle’s novel is mercifully short. It’s not a book to enjoy, more one to admire. She tells her family’s story in bursts of interior monologue, a very effective device although these are people whose heads you won’t want to spend much time in. Louis veers chaotically from grandiosity to literally vomiting out his secrets; Cally seems paralysed by years of his cruelty and neediness; Andi retreats into social media, lonely and ripe for grooming while Cassie invents happy families for herself when she’s not channelling Blackie. Only Toby appears to have a veneer of responsibility. The measure of the success of Buckle’s novel lies in the sheer discomfort it provokes. It was a relief to finish it. I found the ending a little bewildering but it’s impossible not to admire the audacity of this unsettling piece of fiction.

El Hacho by Luis Carrasco: A Spanish fable

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I’m always a little wary when small publishers approach me to review a book, and époque press is tiny. If a book from a large conglomerate turns out not to suit that’s one thing but for a press as small as this one it’s entirely different. Sporting a ringing endorsement from Jon McGregor on it’s beautiful jacket, Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho is the first book époque have published. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella – barely more than a hundred pages – reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain.

Curro was born and raised on the olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He remembers his father courteously rebuffing approaches to buy their ancestral land, twice offering a man from Malaga a handful of home-grown almonds and sending him on his way. Curro lives in the old family home with his wife Carmen, farming the land alongside his brother who comes up from the village at the foot of the mountain each day. This year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. As Curro and Jean-Marie labour in the searing heat, Marie complains while Curro placates. It’s clear that Curro sees himself as the guardian of this mountain grove where both his parents are buried while Marie has his sights set on an easier life. When Marie fails to appear for several days, Curro takes himself off to the village, visiting the bar where he knows his brother will inevitably show his face. They come to an arrangement that will cost Curro dear. Not long after, the drought finally breaks in a storm which is biblical in its ferocity.

Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut both for its author and publisher. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it:

Without these trees I’m just a man, which is nothing much to be Curro’s father tells the man from Malaga

The olives hung weakly on their stalks, unresponsive to the touch and sad like rickety children observes Curro

We’re all spokes on the same wheel Marie. We turn together declares Curro of their community

There’s a timelessness about Carrasco’s novella. Despite the lure of the modern world, Curro remains quietly loyal to his family and to his neighbours while his brother succumbs to the temptations of what he thinks money can buy. Tuck this one into your case if you’re off to Spain for your holiday, or anywhere really. I wish I had, although the Spain of Madrid and Toledo is very different from Curro’s.