Review: Jellyfish by Janice Galloway
Turn, Try to Breathe and Turn
“You can see through them … into their guts.”
On a seaside trip, a young boy is briefly distressed coming across rows of dead jellyfish stranded by the tide. His mother explains what the little round gummy patties are, then fights to conceal her consternation when he spots one that has met a crueler fate. The title story of Janice Galloway’s brilliant new collection finds wise and watchful Monica helping her four-year-old learn what is safe to try and what is risky, so he can leave her, running off into his own life, though her heart is in her mouth.
Seeing into the ‘guts’ of sex, love and parenthood across all fourteen stories, Galloway contests David Lodge’s assertion that “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” And she has done so successfully: the collection was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
Life, seen from the parental angle, is not any less risky. The children (and adult children) we meet are, or have been, in danger of varying kinds; injury, accident, benign neglect or, in the case of the story ‘turned’, much worse ensues. For example, ‘almost 1948’, published in Gutter 12, ‘reimagines’ a very ill Eric Blair working on Nineteen Eighty Four on Jura with his son and sister, following his wife’s death. In ‘distance’, Martha watches helplessly as her son Peter, just three, runs into a sheet glass table, splitting open his head.
“A towel pressed to his forehead soaked as soon as it touched, blood forcing up through the fibres. As though the wound had been made by a cutlass. She cradled his face, hands running like a butcher’s, as his eyes rolled and the screaming went on, and on, and on.”
“It’s alright,” Martha croons,“Let mummy take it.” All the pain and tears, the fear and Martha’s fight to “take it” throughout, leave the reader pondering, as Monica did in ‘jellyfish’, how we best protect our children, assess their hurt and offer comfort, while still gently turning them free to live their lives and take on risks. And, how to manage the same for ourselves? George Orwell, on Jura, carries his son Richard “bloody as a fox” to the doctor for stitches, but resents being advised to stop pushing himself so hard physically, to finish his book.
As Orwell is soon to be, many of the parents are lost, absent or dead. Dads or mums, including Martha, leave or have left already. Characters felled by emotional pain, still try every which way to keep on keeping on. Martha, on a trip to Jura, is confronted with a damaged and terrified wild creature, heaving in physical agony. Despite her frozen grief and the bloody gore in front of her, she manages to give (and therefore, strangely, receive) some comfort in the crisis. The trick, echoing Galloway’s now classic debut novel title, is once again, just to keep breathing. Stay present. Here.
In ‘turned’, we witness a daughter who can’t stay present, can’t bear her own name and has horror echoing endlessly in her head. The story is a masterpiece in capturing incoherent trauma, transforming fragments on the page into a vivid searing portrayal of the tricks minds play when trying to making sense of the incomprehensible. Seeing an arm splayed on the ground, the girl urges herself frantically to run, “Turn. Try to breathe and turn. Turn.”
And we can turn away, remembering with gratitude the more light-hearted, sensual stories, the laugh out loud moments, and applauding the magic of the last lines that surprise.
Jellyfish, Janice Galloway
Freight Books, RRP£12.99 169 pp