Monday, 7 July 2014

Review: 'Burning Your Boats' by Angela Carter

Burning Your Boats: Collected Short StoriesShort story collections can be hit and miss. Is there a unifying theme or idea, such as in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories in which Carter adapts fairy tales, or is simply a random collection? What happens when you love one story but dislike the next? It makes reviewing collections quite difficult at times. I have become a major Angela Carter fan in the last year and Burning Your Boats has only increased my love.
As well as her eight novels, Angela Carter published four wonderful collections of short stories during her lifetime, and contributed stories to several anthologies. The stories were scattered amongst different publishers, and a couple of the volumes are now out of print. In Burning your Boats they are gathered for the first time; this is a key collection and a major event for Angela Carter aficionados.
Rather than being a "genuine" collection, it is a kind of 'biggest hits' compilation, chronically ordered. The editors went through all of Carter's short story collections and chose 42 stories for this volume. Carter doesn't shy away from pointing out the more disturbing aspects of fairy tales or of highlighting aspects of humanity we otherwise try to hide from sight. This makes all of her stories fascinating and  I found myself completely entranced with almost all of them. The great thing about this collection is that every single story is infused with something truly Carterian. There is that mix between the absurd, the fantastical and the intensely human, that allows you to recognize yourself in her characters even when you're completely alienated by them. The only way I can explain it is by comparing her writing to when you return to a house you once used to live or spent a summer holiday. You don't instantly recognize it, but then you weave your way between the chairs and you remember to move your foot before it hits the edge of the couch, or you rest your hand on the table edge, worn of by your frequent touch, and it feels natural.

A large part of this is Carter's writing style. Written by anyone else, her stories wouldn't have any effect. At times her writing is very word-y, there just seems to be so much she wants to describe. At times this can be off-putting and you're in danger of skipping over her descriptions. However, it is within these descriptions that Carter puts a lot of the atmosphere and characterization. I love how lyrical her writing is. The other day I wrote a short post about a passage from one of her stories in which she, through her writing style, smoothly moves from talking about forests and woods to the human mind, with some talk of labyrinths and mazes along the way. The thing is that Carter's writings style is seamless. One topic rolls into the next so gracefully that it seems the two always belonged together. Below are some of my favourite sentences/phrases of the collection:

  • 'But repression does not necessarily give birth only to severe beauties. In its programmed interstices, monstrous passions bloom.' - 'A Souvenir of Japan'
  • 'Today the sun will not irradiate the heroes of the dark spectacle to which accident and disharmony combined to invite us.' - 'The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter'
  • 'Upon its pelt [the Tiger] bore the imprint of the bars behind which it lived.' - 'Lizzie's Tiger'
  • 'Mother love, which winds about these daughters like a shroud.' - 'Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost'

I already reviewed a part of this collection in my review of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, and although that still leaves a good thirty-five to think about, I will only mention a few of my new favourites now. 'A Very, Very Great lady and Her Son at Home' is short but very visual. In my mind it really conjured up this image of the 50's film noir femme fatale and it bursts her bubble effectively. 'The Smile of Winter' is a very different kind of story, much more of an internal monologue that wavers between dramatic sentimentality and deep insight. Some very nice language in this one. 'Elegy for a Freelance' is spectacular in how it builds on the female protagonist and I loved how it never twisted the way I expected it to. The ending is also one of my favourite endings of any of Carter's stories. 'The Fall River Axe Murders' is a great take on the story and the nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden. Although quite some facts about the Borden family are known, Carter infused all of them with life. 'John Ford's 'Tis A Pity She's A Whore' is another amazing adaptation. Carter really had the skill of taking old stories and finding humanity in it. Although that might seem difficult with this story, Carter transports it to a ranch in America and adds a while new layer of drama to it. 'Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost' is, initially, almost more a literary analysis of the original Cinderella fairy tale but all three of her takes on the story are fascinating in their own right. 'Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalen' is similar to 'The Fall River Axe Murders' in that Carter takes inspiration, this time from two paintings. It is amazing how she brings these images to life.

I give this collection...

5 Universes.

I'm quite possibly never going to stop re-reading these stories. By the time you get to the end of the collection you want to start again. Carter possessed a lot of insight into how people tick, not only women but also men. My copy of the book already looks worn, it has post-it notes in it, scribbled words in the margins and I've only been through it once. If there was a short story collection I'd recommend to everyone it would be this one. At times you wonder how Carter got away with writing what she wrote, but I'm very happy she did.

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