Reading Gaynor Arnold’s collection of short stories, Lying Together, feels rather like having a good gossip about one’s neighbours – enjoyable, undoubtedly, but on the whole more voyeuristic than insightful. Unfortunately, this is most true of the first tale of the series, ‘Telling Radnor’. There is a bitchy underlay to the narrative that is uncomfortably pleasurable, and this tone, once set, casts a shadow over the rest of the book.
The social worker’s insight heralded in the blurb has its advantages and disadvantages. Arnold’s characters have a bare and compelling realism, no doubt a product of her own experience. Yet she has a tendency to seek the everyman or woman, the lowest common denominator. In ‘Looking for Leslie Howard’, Elsie is a young girl with a crush. Her actions are those of a teenage-girl-with-a-crush, not of a clearly communicated individual you can believe; in ‘The Ginger Rogers of Bath and Wells’, it is easy to see the elderly Lydia, one-time star languishing in old age, as a type. The characters facilitate the author’s real interest – their relationships and the situations they find themselves in. Here Arnold is more successful. She incorporates the characters’ sexual relations with a light touch, but to great effect.
Interestingly, there is a strong gender divide in the stories. Male and female interaction is often defined by an inability to communicate, and it is in this area that the author’s understated prose comes into its own. It is thence that ‘In the Street of the Rose Gatherers’ and ‘Room for Manoevre’ draw a quiet power.
Gaynor Arnold brings an undeniable empathy to Lying Together: in many ways it is clearly a deeply personal book, drawing much from the author’s own experiences. Yet perhaps it is too personal. Arnold doesn’t seem to be able to get enough distance from herself to write the variety of characters the collection demands. I wanted to like Lying Together, but the failure of the majority of the characters meant, for me at least, the failure of the anthology as a whole.
Lying Together, by Gaynor Arnold; Tindal Street Press; ISBN 978-1-906994-11-2; paperback, £12.99
First appeared in Erotic Review Issue 118