Mothers is the first collection of short stories from Chris Power, whose Brief Survey of the Short Story has appeared in the Guardian since 2007, which details such luminaries of the genre as Beckett, Foster Wallace and Updike. The time has come for Power to walk the talk and join the masters of the genre – or, at least, to try his very best.
Mothers represents more than a balling-up of shorter pieces and is both tonally very even and thematically consistent. Many of the stories within concern characters at various stages in life who find themselves abroad, as well as caught in moments of personal transition. It is probably appropriate, considering the format of the short story and its necessary brevity, that Power explores ideas around transience, caprice and the unknowability of human emotions, as nearly every story in the collection does. It is not that Mothers has an inappropriate focus, but rather the format itself that is generally dissatisfying.
The problem with the form that Power has selected (and in which he has evident expertise) is that there is less space to properly set up its conflicts and stakes or endear the characters to the reader. As a result of this, Mothers seem to lean on overt sexuality as a way of exposing characters’ inner desires and vulnerabilities, and on the inexplicability of the human soul as a way of wrapping its stories in some kind of meaning without actually gesturing towards anything specific in their conclusions. It probably does not help that the collection is redolent of Ian McEwan’s jaw-thrusting and masturbatory collection First Love, Last Rights (one of my personal least favourite books of any kind) and abounds with rather passive characters – the father helpless to protect his daughter on holiday in Greece, the traveller at the mercy of dark passion, etc. etc.
In a short story collection titles really do matter, and in Mothers they are woefully uninteresting or non-descriptive (The Colossus of Rhodes, Innsbruck, and The Havang Dolmen in particular sound like excerpts from the contents page of a travel guide) and while the title of the collection itself does connect three stories and their protagonists at its start, end and middle, it feels unsuitable for the whole. Yiyun Li describes the book as concerning ‘the unexpectedness of life’s undercurrents and our uncertain, unknowable selves’, and other reviewers are right to describe Power’s writing as ‘unsettling’ – but it is the kind of unease that you would probably experience if you were propositioned on the street by a stranger – unsettling and unexpected certainly, but quite unlikely to entice or to interest you for very long. Seduction takes time, and sometimes less is less.
Shorter works work best with not only interesting narrators but interesting narratives. Think of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, or any given Graham Greene collection – a short story works on the same principle of a joke in establishing setting, impulse or expectation and then inverting it as efficiently and unexpectedly as possible. Short stories simply don’t work very well with elaborate character study, so while Power’s writing can be fine, daring and even sensational, it feels as if he has brought the balls for the wrong sport with Mothers. You would think that he, of all people, would know better.
Chris Power, Mothers, Faber & Faber, 284 pgs, available in Kindle, hardcover and paperback.