For the sake of argument, let’s agree that a short story collection is a lot like a debut LP. The lines aren’t exactly parallel, but the inexact comparison serves to introduce the idea of presenting a body of work to the world’s scrutiny for the first time, and all the pride and anxiety that must entail. This is the opportunity for the artist to set out their stall, to define their voice, to select the pieces they most want to be heard. There’s a lifetime’s experience in their shaping, so much clamouring to be said, and barely enough time to say it.
It is to Sonya Moor’s credit that, with The Comet, she has shaped a collection that, while capturing something of the singularity of her voice, does not feel the need to be hidebound by genre. There’s a range here, a cultural exchange harking back to the days when recording artists such as Petula Clark recorded their hits in French and English.
Underpinning all the pieces, and unifying their disparity, is a definable sensibility. Wearing their art on their sleeve, these are short stories for postgraduates in the humanities and the classics, as flagrant in their bookishness as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. For all that, however, their effect is not to keep the reader at a distance, not least because their instinct is unstintingly inclusive, thematically returning time and again to imbalances in power, whether arising from the privileges of masculinity or wealth.
Money, if not precisely the root of evil is, in Moor‘s tales, often the enabler of awfulness. The antagonist in Lapin A La Moutarde, to whom its protagonist looks back in anger, is the grande dame of a wealthy family, who, finding her wanting when it comes to her son’s marriage prospects, comes to an unequal arrangement with her. Like the steps in a recipe the protagonist has committed to heart, the tale unpeels each successive layer of the strategies the rich use to garnish their interests as though they were those of the poor.
Belle-mere in Lapin being a notable exception, there is the possibility of redemption. Most frequently, this arrives in the epiphany of empathy. In A Steal, for instance, related as one side of an email correspondence, Victoria, typing with the half-jocularity of a Saturday broadsheet columnist secure in their self-satisfaction, is jolted off the rails of her established certainties by a reparative encounter with her credit card fraudster.
For me, however, her most successful pieces are those through which she evokes the less schematic richness of life, strange with incidental detail. Feeding Is Forbidden, for instance, while quietly pulling apart the pettiness of the petit bourgeoisie, does so by homing in on pigeons as unlikely carriers of a subtextual message outlining how urban living breeds a mistrust in the kindness of strangers. Its resonant compressions are, perhaps, surpassed by All Things Bright And Beautiful, at once a psychological thriller played out at junior school scale and something far darker. Appropriately enough in light of its themes, in the fall and rise of its conjoined jeopardies, it has something of the economy of a New Testament parable, albeit one written after Nietzsche.
Inevitably, too, there are conceits which are less successful. Moor is drawn moth-like to the incandescence of art and its history as material for her own works. It is not entirely surprising that, on occasion, her responses fail to live up to the originals. For each Young Girl With A Flower Basket, fleshing out the details of Picasso’s model, there’s a Lettre A Simone, its technical virtuosity working against its effect.
All things considered, there’s much in The Comet to commend it, to augur that a second collection will sidestep any of the follow-up’s proverbial difficulties, while the debut itself has the qualities to suggest the long tail of its astronomical namesake.
All images courtesy of Confingo Publishing