Leone Ross has just been shortlisted for the Saboteur Prize. To mark the event, here’s the excellent review of the book by Bernardine Evaristo for London’s Guardian.
Leone Ross’s first short-story collection demonstrates her imaginative power and great psychological depth. The protagonists are predominantly female and Caribbean; abuse, sex, loneliness, betrayal and abandonment are recurrent themes. The collection opens with “Love Silk Food”, about an older woman married to a philanderer. She calls his mistresses “Excitement Girls”: “Wet things with their oiled spines, sweating lips, damp laps.” Deeply hurt, she spends hours sitting alone in busy shopping centres or aimlessly riding the London underground. When she gets chatting to a friendly man on a train, she misreads the signals and ends up painfully humiliated. As with her two novels, Orange Laughter and the Orange prize-nominated All the Blood Is Red, Ross writes here with searing empathy and compassion. Her women are rounded, wounded, and we cannot help but feel for them.
She also shows how people act out the patterns of their pasts. The much envied model in “Roll It” is a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend, Parker. We learn that her back was whipped raw by her mother in childhood and that Parker’s father broke his nose as a teenager. The model cannot bring herself to escape her abuser: she resorts to a spectacular act of self-immolation on the catwalk. “Whoomph! Her hair burns. Her bruises peel away under the heat, like black paper. Roll your hips, she thinks. Her eyes burn last.” The effect is mesmerising, shocking, unforgettable.
In this remarkable fiction, Ross uses the power of metaphor to explore the grief of women who suffer in silence
Several heroines appear to hold it together but are going through hell. The ultra-organised career woman in “Velvet Man” is courted by a stranger. When he visits her flat, it’s a filthy mess, the exterior manifestation of her interior chaos. “Swaying in her shame. Her mouth cracks open. ‘I’m so lonely,’ she says.” He cleans up her flat, no strings attached. Soothed by his kindness, work done, when he leaves she’s alone again – but there’s a twist to come. Several of these stories play with fantasy, sometimes through magic realism. In “The Mullerian Eminence”, disembodied hymens slide out of women and are left about a city, each one unique: “A golden cobweb”, “thin silk”, “glimmering wrought iron”. A man discovers them and gains access to their tales of abuse. In this remarkable fiction, Ross uses the power of metaphor and symbolism to explore the grief of women who suffer in silence.
Another magic realist tale, “The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant”, sees a woman move into a restaurant owned by her lover: when she dies she becomes an expensive dining chair. “Her body is no longer flesh but velvet, and her eyes are glass beads.” The story perplexes, amuses and meditates on the power of love and desire.
Ross is a bold writer of graphic erotica. “Art, For Fuck’s Sake” has a celibate writer convinced that all men are dogs, “panting, impatient things that looked at you with irresistible eyes, then wagged their tails at the very next bitch”. The natural extension of her friendship with two male artists leads to a satisfying threesome and her faith in men is restored: “They are not dogs. They are lions. I hold up my head in the face of their grace and their beauty.”
The outrageously funny “Drag” stars a woman who wants to experience sex as a man in a piece that contrasts neatly with the other narratives where women find their desires overwhelmingly thwarted. These stories capture the complexity of women who have both strong passions and huge problems – the most fertile ingredients for exciting fiction.