FROM THE NECK UP by Aliya Whiteley
Titan, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Writers of short fiction may not realise that they have a tendency to return to familiar tropes and ideas. Some writers prefer particular approaches and styles. It is only when the stories are collected in one volume that some of these become apparent. In the stories collected in this volume, it is noticeable that Whiteley has a quirky thread running through many of them. The majority in this volume have first-person narrators who tend to be older people, mostly female. Many also have a strong environmental aspect.
The lead story, ‘Brushwork’, contains many elements that appear typical. It is set on a farm where everything is grown under biodomes, and because the climate has changed so dramatically, these fruits are a rare commodity. The workers are an ageing population but have nowhere else to go. The narrator used to be a teacher but now spends every day pollinating and caring for melons. Change comes when the complex is attacked by Agro-terrorists. Like too many well-meaning groups, they may think that what they are doing is right but lack the foresight to realise that they don’t have the skills and knowledge to take advantage of their enthusiasm. The story encompasses many themes such as climate change, corruption, capitalism, terrorism and the generation gap.
‘Star in the Spire’ is also set against a background of climate change, but, here, the narrator is trying to stay alive in a dying environment. As Sammie travels, she comes across a valley that is green and appears deserted except for scar-crows pointing to the church. This story is surreal and creepy. Plastic is another scourge on our environment. In ‘Blessings Erupt’ the narrator and a group of other children were found living on an island of discarded plastic and had been able to survive by ingesting it. They are found to have the ability to suck out tumours caused by the plastic plague.
‘Three Love Letters From An Unrepeatable Garden’ takes a different slant of plants. Here a beautiful plant is created that has a scent that can heal, but with every sniff, it dies a little. The dilemma is whether beauty should be preserved or allowed to do what it was created for. ‘From The Neck Up’ has a different kind of strangeness. Megan finds a decapitated head still alive on her bed. From it grows a plant that gives her hope.
Love is a motivation in some of these stories, with characters finding more than they expected. In ‘To The Farm’, the family chauffeur is given the task of returning a synthetic child back to the manufactory to be dismantled but is reluctant to do so. In contrast, the narrator in ‘Into Glass’ can transform the love her husband has for her into delicate glass sculptures. On the downside of love, ‘Loves Of The Long Dead’ involves the spirit of an Egyptian princess, murdered on her wedding night, taking over the mind of the biologist that released her from her prison and searches for revenge.
Desire for something seemingly out of reach can be powerful, but like so many things, the chance of fulfilment of that desire does not always bring the expected result. ‘Farleyton’ is a city that everyone wants to get into, believing it to be a utopia. Meanwhile, in ‘The Spoils’, a person rewarded with parts of a huge creature that has crept from the depths into the tunnels where they live uses her portion to get out of the tunnels and onto the surface. ‘The Tears Of A Building Surveyor, And Other Stories’ is the narrator’s desire for a more exciting life. Elderly and with an ailing husband, she embarks on memoirs that recount the life she would have liked. She is coming to terms with the life she did have, as is the narrator in ‘Many-Eyed Monsters’. When this elderly narrator begins to cough up spheres with many eyes, she is at first frightened until she discovers she is not alone. This story can also be taken as an allegory for coming to terms with the problems of age.
It has long been noticed that, over time, places expand and shrink, and cities are likened to living creatures. ‘Corwick Grows’ takes this to an extreme. When the narrator finds Corwick, it is little more than a dilapidated farmhouse at the heart of which is an old man festooned by tubes. When he is replaced by the vital young man, the village begins to expand. At its smallest, Corwick is no more than a retreat. In ‘Chantress’, a vibrant village is a retreat where the inhabitants still believe in the powers of their three hermits, the Enchantress, the Chantress and the Disenchantress. Between them, they keep the real world at bay.
The other two stories in this volume could be science fiction; they could be alien invasion stories or the imaginings of the narrators. Both are certainly surreal. ‘Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion’ revolves around an obsession with an unexplained phenomenon, ‘Compel’ is a disintegration of mental faculties in everyone, not just the narrator. Neither story has a resolution.
If you like quirky, surreal and evocative stories, you will like these.