Review: ‘The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain’ by Judy Darley

Sam Burt

In ‘Why Rivers Run to the Sea’, one of the many flash fictions making up this collection, a river running through Bristol warns us: ‘Don’t try to slow me; I have somewhere to be.’ It’s a tiny, insistent, sensuous story, written in prose that manages to be both economical yet lyrical, and that wisely keeps the river’s personification at the surface level of pure instinct. Like the best of these stories, it briefly disorients us and withholds resolution, leaving ripples in its wake.

Yet I felt that the same formula yielded less successful results in other cases: why? In part, I think the enterprise of a flash-fiction anthology (which describes most but not all of the stories) is a risky one. A strong flash succeeds in part because it is standalone and discrete, and seems like an authentic glimpse into, or sliver of, its character’s lives. It’s a fleeting glance or a snatch of an overheard conversation that lingers. The danger with a single-author flash anthology is that a voice carries over from one piece to the next and grows familiar, robbing individual pieces of their sense of uniqueness – and thus their impact.

To say this is a difficulty that Judy Darley does not entirely get out of in this, her third story collection, is not meant as a criticism of the stories themselves (which are often beautifully written and insightful), nor is it to question her skill as a flash practitioner (speaking as someone who wrestles, less gracefully, with the form). It is to ask whether a flash fiction collection might tend to be – without some conscious, planned effort to overcome that tendency – something less than the sum of its parts. I am still unsure of the answer.

Darley has described herself as being ‘fascinated with the fallibilities and strengths of the human mind’. Her characters often draw on their imagination to adapt, endure and even thrive in spite of hardships – failed relationships, estranged family, and isolation both social and geographical. Frequently, the natural world offers solace, whether it be a ‘fishing cat’ washed in with the tide to keep a lonely lighthouse keeper company, or an oak tree that absorbs the anxieties of the people who scream into it. And light and dark are woven into her treatment of lockdowns, as with everything else: while grown-ups succumb to insomnia and obsessive hobbies, kids paint rainbows and conjure fantasy landscapes out of domestic spaces (hence the book’s title).

The stories that stayed with me afterwards were those that felt the most fresh at the time of reading. Two such stories – ‘Storm Beckoner’ and ‘The Salt-Sting of Learning When to Say No’ – share a couple of things in common, which seem telling: they are written in close (but not too close) third-person, and each uses language that’s both sensual and matter-of-fact to describe abrupt, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intimate encounters (‘His saliva carried intimations of fruit and salt, peppermint and smoke’). In pieces like these, Darley operates a kind of middle-distance third person that keeps our focus on the action of the story rather than the narrative voice. Generally speaking, it is the content of each story that makes it distinctive from its neighbours.

In those stories where the “I” predominates, however – or those featuring an omniscient or close narrator – a feeling of familiarity sometimes crept in. It is difficult to generalise across such a large number of stories, but I often found these narrators echoing their counterparts from other pages: they tended to be talkative, declarative, lyrical and articulate – and, in the case of the first-person narrators, were almost never aware of themselves as narrators. (Again, this is arguably not a criticism of the stories themselves, but of the cumulative effect of reading them in lengthy sequence.)

Just occasionally, their talkativeness lapses into a wordiness that feels counter-productive in such a short story. Consider ‘Alone Doesn’t Have to Mean Lonely’:

You left in February, telling me you felt suffocated, striking out from air. From our bed, I watched you empty shelves into suitcases. Our duvet wound around me, clinging on as though to prevent you trying to take that too.

We probably don’t need to be told that someone who felt suffocated struck out for air; neither does the symbolic significance of the duvet’s clinginess need spelling out. In instances like these, I wished the author had had the confidence of her convictions and believed in her imagery (or, perhaps, that her characters had believed in theirs). By contrast, where the imagery is left to speak for itself, it resounds: ‘empty chatter sandwiched silences so thick that the clock’s ticking echoed and stuck’.

One way around this difficulty of echoing narrative voices is to use voices that are exaggeratedly singular and insistent – something Darley does to great effect with second-person pieces reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. In ‘Reasons Your Kefir Might Sour’, a narrator instructs us how to fend off criticism of your fermented yoghurt drink from family and co-workers, but the subtext is obvious:

When asked if kefir can go bad, be evasive. It’s possible the person addressing you with this questions is really trying to find out whether you’ve gone bad and whether, as your mother’s sighs hint, your isolation since the divorce is cause for concern.

As the story progresses, the metaphor is dragged out to absurd lengths, making us laugh and feel guilty for it. But crucially, I invested and believed in this person as an individual, distinct from the other individuals in these stories (even though several feature women in the aftermath of break-ups) because unlike them, she, for all her apparent self-denial, is a self-aware narrator. She talks to me, not at me.

I opened this review by discussing ‘Why Rivers Run to the Sea’ because this piece helps to explain why some of the flashes in this collection are more impactful than others. It has a bold and unusual narrative voice, yes, but the voice does not dominate: the narrative – getting to the sea, the ‘embrace of mackerel and herring’ – is what matters. Where the narrative voice of these stories seems to overlap is where the pieces lose something of their individuality and risk flowing into each other – and here, like the river, parts of the collection threaten to rush past us. That so many of the pieces here swim against that tide – a tide that, in many ways, seems built into the form – is to the author’s immense credit.

About the Contributor

Sam Burt (he/him) is a bookseller and tutor in sunny east London. In 2021 he finished an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester and founded the East London Indie Book Club. His writing has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, the Guardian and 3:AM Magazine among others. He considers badminton a contact sport.

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