Too brief and unconvincing
THINGS THAT MAKE THE HEART BEATFASTER JOÃO MORAIS Parthian Books, 200pp, £9
What makes a good short-story collection? Without the length and scope of a novel to develop characters and plot, a story has to be precise in its aims and language. There is a spotlight on everything, an unwillingness to forgive the wrong turns or flabbiness that novelists can get away with in a more generous medium that offers readers other pleasures. For a collection, each story must pull its own weight but also lean in to the others. There must be cohesion and consistency for a collection to come together.
Both are sadly lacking in the Welsh writer João Morais’s debut collection. Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster starts with two strong stories whose power is rarely matched in the rest of the book. The title is intended to reflect moments of intense change in a character’s life. This is shown beautifully in the book’s second story, The Tea Party, as sudden illness prompts a granddaughter to regret the way she has treated her beloved grandmother: “There’s nothing she can do except hold the warm leather of Nana’s hand.”
For most of the collection, Morais focuses on much younger characters than Nana. Teenagers coming of age, first-time drug takers, emerging artists trying to earn a crust, and young women who run food stalls at festivals amount to an interesting contemporary backdrop. The funny opening story, The Pavement Poet, is told by an irreverent, first-person narrator whose obnoxious views on homeless people – “He’s twenty-past-eleven drunk at twenty past eight. You know how aggro they get when they’ve had too much trampagne” – come back to bite him in the end. Further strengthening the story is a Friel-esque delivery that breaks the text into private and public thought.
Morais is from Cardiff, and his short stories, reviews and poems have been published in the New Welsh Review and Wales Arts Review . He has been shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition, the Percy French Prize for Comic Verse, and the All Wales Comic Verse Competition. This flair for humour is seen in the opening story and in sparse flashes elsewhere. In Untitled (Text on Paper), the attitude of a so-hot-right-now graffiti artist contrasts nicely with the graft of painter Alexis. Her dig at the Arts Council as “funding from the Old White Men” lands, though ultimately the story is let down by inauthentic dialogue, caricatures and a twee ending.
The problem with dialogue is more pronounced in Asking a Shadow to Dance , in which the dialect of an immigrant family feels forced. A teenage son gets reprimanded by his mother’s boyfriend in a novel fashion but the resulting epiphany doesn’t chime with the voice: “Because for the first time in his life, Jordan had seen the same person that everybody else saw. He was seeing the woman who was bringing up two young sons on her own, the woman who still grieved for her lost lover.”
A tendency to explain seminal moments ruins other stories, as with the intense situation of One of the Cullens, where chugger Glenn goes on a date with the ex of a local heavy: “Glenn looked at [Cullen’s] arm. He understood what it was now. His cut was a cry for attention in physical form. Cullen wanted to show her and say, look, this is what I feel.”
Violence is a recurring theme but its effects warrant far more exploration. Despite its good title, The Anatomy of a Beating is related in the unconvincing voice of a man caught up in the murky world of steroids and drug pushing. The story arc itself is murky, an issue throughout the collection.
In The Visit, neither the predicament nor stakes are clear as a young man goes to visit his friend in prison, awkwardly splicing a tale from the outside world with the meeting. The vernacular doesn’t chime, drawing attention to itself and away from the story: “You goes proper deep into your swede to tell the story.” Narrators in multiple stories speak the same way, with repeated grammatical errors and slang words that seem more authorial than genuinely suited to voice.
In the title story, Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster, the voices of the teenage party-goers do mostly ring true but there are far too many of them for a coherent narrative. Instead we get anecdotes about kids taking drugs that aren’t really drugs, the bones of a story related in snippets that aren’t allowed to develop.
Novel readers often complain that short stories aren’t satisfying enough. They’re over too soon, they take you away from the character just as you’re getting to know them, they don’t give enough backstory or context. Good short stories can counter these accusations, but there is nowhere to hide for the ones that don’t.
Left hanging: João Morais