How to Gut a Fish by Sheila Armstrong is a strange and sharp collection of short stories, that packs so much into a small book. The stories are so different, the main unifying element being a foray into the unsettling and the jarring. There are stories where things may or may not have happened; or things that certainly happened but remain unsaid. Lifetimes pass before us in a flash, or short periods of time are explored in great detail. There are stories that explore cause and effect; how one small moment can have dire consequences. Then there is the story which is progressing somewhat normally before taking a delightfully surreal turn at the end. At the core of this reading experience for me is the fact that it’s the feelings and sensations evoked by each story, the moments captured, that prevail over the storylines themselves. Armstrong’s writing is so rich and dense that she packs so much into each sentence, even in the passages where nothing of particular consequence is happening; the corner of a room, food, a part of the landscape, each are described in detail as their own microcosm. There are also beautiful turns of phrase at every corner.
On nights out, she sits in booths with friends and gathers their heartaches like collectibles.‘Haptic’
Armstrong captures the atmosphere of her landscapes so vividly. The landscape is alive in many of these stories. Any landscape is alive, as such, but here there is something unknown carried on the breeze, something latent shifting and simmering in the soil, beneath the surface; some force that manifests itself, subtly or not, in ways that infiltrate or disrupt the people passing through these landscapes. The collection opens with ‘Hole’ which remains one of my favourites for its simplicity and what remains unsaid versus the powerful sensations evoked. Many of the stories have several different mini-stories or perspectives within, perspectives that intersect to various extents. An awkward house gathering in ‘Haptic’ draws together a group of people each struggling with, and reflecting on, their own realities and anxieties; while in ‘Star Jelly’ we climb alongside a group of dishevelled and low-energy hikers, but also view them from afar through the eyes of others on their own journeys.
These stories are a beautiful showcase of the craft of writing, and the depths of imagination to which a writer’s mind can venture. This is the kind of collection that demands a prompt re-read because you know you are going to get so many things that you missed the first time around.
Book 10 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
How to Gut a Fish was published by Bloomsbury in 2022.
Sheila Armstrong is a writer from the northwest of Ireland. She spent ten years in publishing and now works as a freelance editor. Her first collection of short stories, How To Gut A Fish, was published in 2022 and her debut novel, Falling Animals, will follow in 2023.
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