A Family of Stories

David Hebblethwaite reviews Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power, Mothers.
Faber & Faber. £10.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Chris Power knows a thing or two about short stories. Since 2007, he has written the Guardian’s occasional series ‘A Brief Survey of the Short Story’. One might say that, with more than sixty entries across ten years, it’s not really brief at all, but then again, considering the history and breadth of the short story form, it must be. Now Power brings us his own début collection, Mothers, comprising ten stories of which only a few have been published previously. As with his Guardian series, the title is double-edged: although the volume features many characters who aren’t mothers, a mother-daughter relationship lies at its heart.

The spine of the collection is a set of three stories featuring the same character, Eva, at different stages in her life. The collection begins and ends with one of these stories, and another one appears in the middle so that the remaining seven stories are scattered around them. The first story, ‘Summer 1976’, sees Eva as a child in Stockholm, Sweden. Following her father’s death, Eva moves with her mother, and her mother’s new boyfriend Anders, to an estate on the outskirts of the city. When she meets the neighbours, Eva can’t help but compare her ordinary-seeming mum to the impossibly glamorous Mrs. Hofmann. When Mum and Anders throw parties, Eva watches through a gap in her bedroom door, and it’s always Mrs. Hofmann who catches her eye, looking more as though she belongs in a film than humdrum reality. Only once at one of those parties does Eva see her mother in such a light, dancing with Anders, free from everyday cares and shimmering with beauty. But that’s from a distance: Eva struggles to know her mother in actuality, and her mother dies from cancer two years later, leaving Eva with many things unsaid, questions unasked. “Who was she really, this woman?” Eva wonders. “She was my mum, of course, but that was only one part, and I want to know all the parts.”

We meet Eva again in ‘Innsbruck’, halfway through the collection. Now an adult, Eva has taken to travelling Europe — not, it seems, with any particular plan in mind, more a means of dealing with the sense of displacement that she still feels after ten years living in London. Wherever she goes, Eva takes along her mother’s battered old guidebook. She knows that much of the book’s information will be out of date — and, in any case, whole sections have fallen out — but it is a tangible connection to her mother. The reality of Eva’s travels contrasts markedly with the cheery tone of the guidebook quoted throughout. There’s bad weather and bland food at times, but also signs of the illness that will come to dominate Eva’s life: once, she stands paralysed in the street, her eyes full of tears — something she last experienced in the months after her mother’s death. A potential romance ends following a meal and a dance, with Eva’s speech slurring and consciousness slowing. Elsewhere, she contemplates suicide. But then there is Innsbruck, one of the pages at which the guidebook keeps falling open. At the end of this story, Eva decides to go there, where the river “runs on to meet the Danube, mingles, separates, and is something else completely by the time it empties into the sea.” The tone here feels optimistic: a firm choice, a new start.

The final story, simply titled ‘Eva’, finds any such optimism misplaced: we quickly learn that Eva tried to kill herself in Innsbruck by stepping off a bridge, although she survived. This story is told from the viewpoint of Joe, whom Eva meets and marries several years after Innsbruck. The couple have a daughter, Marie, and at first it seems that all is now well. But Eva grows increasingly apathetic, eventually disappearing for seven years, sending only brief postcards from her travels. She later returns to England — albeit away from the family home — before setting off once again without notice. Nine years after that, Joe is contacted by a Swedish hospital where Eva is being treated for schizoaffective disorder. Here, the situation has inverted from that of the first story: now Eva is the ill mother with a life unknown to her daughter, except that, by then, Marie isn’t interested in talking to her mother.

What form does Mothers take? It’s not a collection of unrelated stories, since it’s built around the three long stories about Eva, but it’s also not a novel-in-stories or an interlinked collection, since none of the other stories connect to Eva’s. Rather, it’s as if the Eva stories sound a bass note that resounds or echoes through the other stories, especially as certain themes from the Eva stories recur elsewhere in the book. Perhaps the most prominent of these themes is the sometimes alienating experience of travel, and especially the idea that foreign places might be put to some personal, perceptual use (just as Eva tries to get closer to her mother’s memory in ‘Innsbruck’ by referring to the old guidebook). This idea drives the action of the story ‘Run’. Here, a couple, David and Gunilla, have travelled to Sweden on holiday; he’s fascinated by the Second World War, and can’t help but imagine the shadow it casts wherever he goes:

He could never shake his amazement that an ordinary crossroads had been a battlefield; that a park had once been stacked with bodies; that a town hall had served as headquarters for a battalion, or even a division. All these places that had been one thing had suddenly become another, and both were as real as the wheel in his hands.

Gunilla, however, is tired of David’s war obsession — and, indeed, tired of him, because she leaves him while both are in the middle of a run. Power turns the run into a kinetic metaphor for the couple’s relationship: “They were running at different speeds, now one catching up, now the other pulling ahead.” At the end of the story, Power suggests that the landscape is ordinary, mostly unremarkable, with no real afterimage of war; David can’t properly read the landscape any more than he could read his relationship for signs of its instability, and now there is nothing, no marker of stability, to guide him into an unknowable future.

The unnamed narrator of ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ tells of how he used to imagine the Greeks and barbarians from his favourite board game fighting each other on the landscapes of his childhood holiday. On a visit to Mandráki Harbour, he would also imagine the Colossus astride the stone piers of the harbour mouth. However, the story emphasises that this is indeed imaginary: the Colossus would have been too heavy to stand across the harbour. The narrator goes on to recall one particular event that happened to him as a child on holiday in Rhodes, then considers how far he can now protect his daughters: “It’s impossible to say they will always be safe, but sometimes it can feel like the truth,” he reflects. This story is a particularly strong example of how nimbly Power can shift tone, going from a relatively light holiday scene to something much darker, then changing again to reflection.

‘The Crossing’ is perhaps the story where place and metaphor are entwined most tightly. New couple Ann and Jim are on a walking holiday in Exmoor. Ann is starting to have doubts about the relationship as irreconcilable differences become apparent: she is interested in observing nature, while Jim just wants to reach the next point on the walk. The pair’s relationship pivots at actual crossing-points: first, Jim’s pride takes a knock when he and Ann need a passing couple’s help to wade through a deep stretch of river, and later, when Ann suggests taking a shortcut over some stepping stones, Jim opts to continue up a steep path rather than relinquish control of the route. A third crossing illustrates the risks of pushing too far, in love and walking. In moments like this, Power’s writing recalls that of Jon McGregor in imbuing the everyday with metaphoric force.

Relationships are also a common theme in Mothers, particularly when the forces at work within them are unknown to the protagonists — Eva’s querulous relationship with her mother, for instance, or David’s egotistical inability to grasp why Gunilla would want to leave him. The story ‘Portals’ lays out a game of flirtation in the streets of Paris. Its narrator goes there to meet Monica, a Facebook acquaintance who has invited him along as she visits a friend. The narrator moves through indoor and outdoor spaces, partying, bumping into strangers, all the while trying to get closer to Monica. He can’t understand why he has such difficulty reaching her when he feels that he’s done what he had to do:

I had been challenged, and I’d met the challenge, but what was I doing now? I should have been in my hotel room with Monica, not walking these pale, empty streets. If I could go back and talk to that person I’d tell him to open every door you come to while you’ve got the chance; there aren’t as many as you think.

In ‘Above the Wedding’, Liam is invited to the marriage of his brother’s friend Nuria and her fiancé Miguel. The difficulty is that Miguel and Liam have had sex a couple of times in the few years they’ve known each other. However, Liam has never really been able to process the experience or understand what he means to Miguel; whenever he has pressed for answers, Miguel has evaded the subject. They’re in very different situations: Miguel can just drop Liam and go back to Nuria, whereas Liam has been unable to initiate any other kind of relationship. Neither Liam nor the narrator of ‘Portals’ can fully understand the behaviour of the person to whom they’re attracted, nor the forces at play in their relationship.

On the whole, there’s a reciprocal energy that sparks between the stories in Mothers. Take each story on its own terms, and the result is a fine collection. Take the book as a sequence, however, and there’s much more: the stories about Eva illuminate elements of the other stories, and the others in turn comment on events in the overarching tale of Eva. At the start, when the young Eva wishes she had known her mother better, we have Liam attempting to reach Miguel in ‘Above the Wedding’, and Ann weighing up Jim in ‘The Crossing’. These stories explore the process of trying to understand someone, whether in the moment or over a longer period. In the middle of the book, while Eva is travelling Europe, we find the narrator of ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ contemplating the limits of what he can do, and David from ‘Run’ absorbed in his own little world as Gunilla leaves him. This is where the focus starts to twist, and Eva goes from daughter to mother, subject to object, with secrets of her own.

Towards the end of Mothers, there’s a recurrent interest in characters who find it difficult to express themselves. As above, the narrator of ‘Portals’ wishes he could go back and advise his younger self, and then comes the story ‘Johnny Kingdom’, in which a stand-up comedian can’t write new material for himself: he only gets laughs when impersonating the titular comic. He finally gets a breakthrough in the midst of a disastrous gig; the way forward only becomes apparent at his lowest ebb. When Joe visits Eva in hospital, she tells him that a therapist encourages the patients to write stories. Joe asks to read Eva’s, and she later sends him a story (in Swedish) titled ‘Sommar 1976’. So, the collection runs back into itself, full circle, with the implication that Eva’s condition can only truly be explained by telling another story.

It’s striking to see that Power’s stories are so distinctive, so recognisably his. Even after this single collection, one has a strong sense of what makes ‘a Chris Power story’: an element of travel, leading to feelings of alienation or uncanniness, and characters who seem to be lost in their lives and in search of something they can’t quite put a finger on. The prose may seem unshowy, but chances are there will be a powerful metaphor underneath, driving the story and dovetailing with the metaphors that drive some of Power’s others. Most of all after reading Mothers, though, there’s a sense of wanting to read more — not just to follow the book back to the beginning of Eva’s tale, but also to see what Power might do with the form after this.