Monday, 18 May 2015

Magical short stories


In Margate by Lunchtime
by Maggie Harris

(Cultured Llama Publishing

I don’t often do book reviews on here, but this one had such an impact on me that I wanted to write something about it.

A strong sense of place, mixed with the dreamlike, a good dash of realism and more than a touch of the surreal work together to create a magical whole  in the new short story collection by Maggie Harris, In Margate by Lunchtime, just published by Cultured Llama -

Born and brought up in Guyana in the Caribbean, Maggie arrived in the UK when she was 18.This collection is set entirely on the Isle of Thanet, where she settled, married, raised her own family and developed her career as a poet, story writer and tutor.

She gives us a series of colourful images of the towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, from some unusual points of view. Sometimes the stories are firmly rooted in a time past, sometimes they are magical or whimsical – but they are always poetic and always take you under the skin of the characters of this place before you realise quite where you are, or how you got there (it could have been on a Vespa driven by a mermaid!).

At the beginning there is a conversation with a parakeet. “We are the ones chosen to light up these drab skies of yours, provide a flash of effervescence,” it says. Yes, that’s what this writer does, she brings light to the animation of the place, the vibrancy of all its levels, from the arrival of the flamingos, to Benjamin Zephaniah, to Turner and TS Eliot. Towards the end we have some words from The Wasteland:  “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.” But straightaway the narrative is decisive and tells us: “I think not.”
Many connections are made in this book, between the characters in the various narratives and the reader. In a direct statement toward the end of the collection, the narrative tells us to “think of this as a pointillist painting, these impressions of ordinary lives in a corner of England…” They are all connected and intertwined and they have an impact beyond that created by a group of impressions. It’s a hallmark of a great story collection that the individual stories stand alone, and stand out, yet the whole taken together has a depth of meaning that is greater than the sum of the parts.

This book had me turning pages, eager for the next story, the next chapter, the next new character, much as an exciting novel would. It creates images, feelings for a place and for people in a way that only the poetic imagination can. 

Maggie has won awards for her stories before – she won the Guyana prize for Literature in 2000, and was the Caribbean winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story prize. This collection should be an award winner. I would expect to see it on some prize list in the next year or so.