It’s my great pleasure and privilege to welcome this, Emma Martin’s first book, into the world. Some of these stories have had public lives already: ‘The Nest’ in Sport 37, ‘Victor’ in New Short Stories 5, and the story that won the prestigious Commonwealth Prize, and for which the collection is titled: Two Girls in a Boat.
Of that story, the Chair of the panel Bernadine Evaristo said:
It fulfilled the judges’ brief that the winning entry have linguistic flair, originality, depth and daring. The story was chosen for its gorgeous, elegant and spare writing; its nuanced handling of time, place and relationships; its daring, provocative subject matter and clear-eyed exploration of the choice of heterosexual conformity in the face of sexual mutability.
Another of the judges, Craig Cliff who is here tonight, says,
Late in my reading, I came across ‘Two Girls in a Boat’, a story that, beneath its detached and polished prose, was also deeply agitated….With its blend of sadness, humour and everyday magic, ‘Two Girls in a Boat’ shot to the top of my list... I’m delighted to see a collection of Emma’s stories now being published. May her work continue to travel widely.
The story ‘Two Girls in a Boat’ was published by Granta online and although all writers know you should never read the comments, the ones below this story’s web page are an exception: ‘your handling of the theme is superb… haunting prose… perfect pacing… touching… one of the best short stories I’ve read in a very long time.’
It’s not just testament to the good taste of Granta readers and Commonwealth Prize judges, but to the calibre of Emma’s writing, which is clear, supple, honest, and fine. All of the stories are a pleasure to read at the level of the sentence and, if language is the boat that carries the story’s content, their emotional freight is no less important.
The effect of reading these stories is multidimensional; they move back in time and to the other side of the globe, pass through different kinds of lives, are visited by death and birth. From Tekapo to the Balkans, and from a middle-class child’s birthday party to the inside of a jail cell, they speak to and of human vulnerability. But they’re tough, too. They do what stories at their best can do which is give everything value. Their overriding quality is empathy, particularly for those who break the rules, who transgress in ways either human or hard to understand. I wondered, reading one in particular, whether Emma had specifically challenged herself to write a compassionate story about the sort of person it is really hard to feel compassion for. But whatever the generative force, the story speaks for itself.
Emma is a writer who knows the names of things, and in her prose the things are allowed to speak for themselves. She can light up an image or space or scenario with just the right words and rhythms. I was lucky enough to read her MA thesis for the IIML in 2009, and though there’s plenty of new work in this collection I came across memorable phrases with a pleasing chime of recognition: A girl with an eye for the main chance looking at a man’s wallet, ‘her eyes sliding towards [it], as if she were a compass and it were her north.’ The ‘downy’ pods of broad beans. This, from the title story: ‘A cyclist glided by, his bike tick-ticking in the quiet night.’
Her characters negotiate choice and consequence, chance and, often, a rough deal. Their struggles are significant even though sometimes understated, and we want the best for them. Happily, survival takes many forms: the stories know that life can and does go on after crises and it is in the what-happens-after that sometimes the deeper insight is gained. They take us through the crisis and beyond, into the human moments where guards are dropped and a kind of complicated truth is allowed to stream in.
In a world where we’re so punitive about some things, and so willing to let other damage go unchecked, we’re in great and ongoing need of compassion. These stories bloom with empathy for the thief, the bewildered and angry, the disastrously shallow… through that empathy and insight Emma opens up in us, the readers, the space to feel compassion, to understand that we are not separate; that all of us, along with those two girls of the title, are in the same boat. It puts me in mind of that wonderful phrase of Grace Paley’s – ‘Every character, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life.’ In Emma’s stories she has placed her characters in dangerous territory familiar to us all, and given them the dignity of their own maps. Many of them feature, in different forms, a lost child, sometimes an adult child, who somehow finds the capacity to make themselves a home, a comfort, a safe place – even if it is under a house. This is the refuge of Agnes, the neglected schoolgirl in The Below, who covets a classmate’s set of marbles:
‘Her favourite are the cat’s eyes. She picks one up. It is clear, with a tricolour swoosh. If you close one eye and put the marble right up to the other, you can see tiny bubbles of air inside the glass. It’s like there’s a whole world in there. Like the marble is a planet; or, the marble is the universe and the bubbles are its stars. She holds it up to the light and squints into it.’
This is a lovely book, insightful, humane, and a pleasure to read. As Agnes observes of the marble, ‘it’s like there’s a whole world in there.’ There ought to be a bottle of champagne to smash against the prow of this fictional boat, but in place of that I’ll ask you to charge your glasses and join me in toasting its great success.
Emily Perkins May 2, 2013.