Shamini Sriskandarajah reviews this debut collection of London-based short stories, full of vivid, colourful characters and with a joyfully feminist streak.
I first met Gemma Seltzer on London’s South Bank on a rainy summer’s day in 2013. She had red and floral umbrellas on display to match her red coat, and was offering strawberries to strangers in exchange for stories about their lives, for a collection of poems called Speak to Strangers. I talked to Gemma, who I’d only encountered on Twitter until then, and shed tears. Later, I wondered how many other strangers wept too, and whether she would write a sister piece called Cry at Strangers. I had a surprise in store when I read the last short story of Ways of Living, ‘Parched’, about a woman who cries in front of others.
A few years later I met her at Write & Shine, the early morning workshops she runs for writers, which used to be in cafes across London but are now a collection of writers’ bedrooms, kitchens, and studies on Zoom. She would introduce me to poems and short stories I’d never heard of, novels that I’d seen and not yet picked up, but her approach to reading – and writing – was human, collaborative, and personal. The Royal Society of Literature has a new scheme called Reading Together, aimed at young people, emphasising that the aim is just to read a piece of literature for fun and talk about what, if anything, people enjoyed about it. Similarly, Gemma encourages the writers at her workshops to have a personal response to the pieces read and the writing exercises set, but there is no sharing of writers’ writing. Attendees read and write for pleasure.
When I heard Gemma was bringing out a collection of short stories, I was excited and proud, and a little nervous. Until then, I had only read Gemma’s pamphlet of 100-word poems for Speak to Strangers Bankside, where each poem was named after the day of the project. ‘Day 5: Friday’, the day I met Gemma on the South Bank, begins: “Rain drives people from the park so I walk the pavements asking them to pause and tell me something new.”
There’s an evocative coupling with Gemma’s poem to represent the London Borough of Bromley for London Lines, ‘Bromley Acquaints itself with the Butterfly Effect’, which ends with rain:
“On a Chislehurst street, children line roads, selling buttercups, wood anemones and wild orchids for fifty pence a bunch.
But elsewhere rain falls, umbrellas release.”
There is a delicate rawness to the scenes she creates, an undercurrent of vulnerability accompanying the bold people that feature in the poems. But how would this be sustained in longer works of fiction?
I began the first story in Ways of Living with some trepidation, but I needn’t have worried. I felt a whoosh of recognition at the two women in the bagel shop on Brick Lane in East London. (I also felt a pang of regret that after a lifetime living in South-East London, I’ve never been to a bagel shop on Brick Lane, and embarrassment that my point of reference was an episode of The Apprentice). The women in ‘Too Close and Not Close Enough’ bleed colour on every page with their thoughts, conversations, and memories of being frenemies at school.
“Once, painting our nails by the canal, she put her head on my shoulder and said I was her best friend. We flapped our wrists to dry the varnish and admired the colours. She said she liked my red nails and I quickly offered her the little jar I’d bought. She took it, delighted. I’d have pulled out each one of my fingernails and given them to her if she said she wanted them, and she knew that.”
The narrative turns are deliciously playful, and by the end I was longing for a whole book about these old school friends. I’d happily have followed them across the city.
“Sadie smiles but her tone is sharp. ‘You may as well tell us now.’
Our younger selves are like dogs on leads, straining to reach each other’s faces. We’re holding on tight, but I’m about to set mine free.”
With any collection, there are bound to be stories that stand out to different readers for different reasons. There will be people who will connect with the stories about ventriloquism or the performance artist putting on an impromptu show in a restaurant, but I got a little lost. My favourite stories were the ones with strong-willed dyads and triads. A daughter grieving her childhood tries to bridge the vast gap between her separated parents. A stranger, who runs into expensive boutiques to avoid people from school and climbs trees to avoid weddings of people from school, plays a mother and daughter against each other. A woman takes her two daughters through the rain to safety in a synagogue. Two bickering sisters-in-law are stuck with each other through loyalty, with a stinging act of cruelty towards the end of their train journey.
Like the old friends of ‘Too Close and Not Close Enough’, I would gladly read a whole book about the women in the title story ‘Ways of Living’. Their historic relationship, their relationships with their husbands and children, how they saw themselves, and the competitiveness of one against the other, were fascinating. The vivid present, the train journey into Central London and the bickering about whether to walk or take a bus to the restaurant, was a constant clash of wills in which I half hoped Colette would win but wondered if the price of Rose’s complaining afterwards would be worth the battle. Perhaps, like families, unhappy friendships are unhappy in their own way: “Rose says, ‘It was wild. Like a passion. I would have killed for him.’ ‘Maternal instinct, they call it,’ Colette replies. ‘I had it too.’ But Rose’s memory is only for herself. ‘Not in the same way.’”
As a Londoner who’s been shielding for most of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s joyous to take my mind on a journey to familiar scenes in these London-set stories, from the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park to the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell. We’re living in a time of social change, with women, people of colour, LQBTQ+ people, and disabled people pushing harder to be seen and heard in a country which, for all its liberalism and equality, has a long history of conservatism and white patriarchy at its core. It’s wonderful, then, that every one of Seltzer’s ten stories is about women, and I was also pleased to hear fragments of Seltzer’s own Jewish heritage in some of the stories – cultural references that I rarely hear and would like to become more familiar with. These threads pull together for the second-to-last story, ‘Should a Catastrophe Occur’, set in a Streatham synagogue with a new student (female) rabbi: “The rabbi pops up by their side. She has fair hair in a bob and beaming eyes, and while she doesn’t hug them, she looks like one day she might.”
I was slightly distracted by the setting of the pandemic in the final story, ‘Parched’, when the first nine seemed to be set in a general, pre-Covid London. But other readers may find comfort in this ending that corresponds to our present, gently illustrating how life in London has changed in the past year – a contrast to the carefree, Portishead and lace-trimmed camisole millennium memories of the two women in the first tale. In the working-from-home and face mask era, a woman cries in front of staff she manages on a Zoom call and delivery drivers who interrupt the meeting. It’s fascinating and familiar to read Ricky’s story and the reactions of people who witness her tears, from the awkwardness and fussing of non-criers to the relief of other criers.
“When she was a child, she always felt the potential for something special to happen when she cried. How magical that your body could produce such a pure, clear, sign of emotion. A whole language she was born understanding. It was like she could grow feathers.”
Ricky herself feels no awkwardness, shame or embarrassment when she weeps, and finds a group of women who view tears much like Samson’s hair: a symbol of strength. It’s a deeply feminist and therapeutic end to Seltzer’s first collection of short stories. I hope there will be more.
Feature image: Gemma Seltzer by Lauren Renner, courtesy of Influx Press.