Any Other Mouth, By Anneliese Mackintosh, book review: Humour where you least expect

 

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The Independent Culture

What a fresh and original book this is. I’ve been aware of Mackintosh’s writing for a while, encountering sparky short stories in highly regarded anthologies and literary magazines, tales that combined lightness of touch with brutal emotional honesty, signs of a real talent in the making.

This debut collection of interconnected, semi-autobiographical stories fulfils that promise, and it’s no surprise that it’s been longlisted for the prestigious Frank O’Connor Prize already.

There are 30 stories here based on the author’s own experiences dealing with grief, alcoholism and mental health. As Macintosh states at the start of the book:

“1. 68% happened.

2. 32% did not happen.

3. I will never tell [which are which].”

You kind of wish that a smaller percentage really happened because there’s some harrowing stuff in here, including self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental collapse. But for all that sounds heavy going, Any Other Mouth is often hilarious, Mackintosh eking bittersweet comedy out of the situations her central character, Gretchen, gets into.

There are echoes of Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and Miranda July throughout Any Other Mouth, but already Mackintosh has carved out a literary territory all her own. She finds profundity and humour side by side in the quietest moments. In “Daddy Smokes” a burning porn stash leads to painful insight, while in “Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This” an overheard comment from a boy on a train leads to a  frank meditation on the diminishing of life.

The finest stories here are also the most inventive. In “A Rough Guide to Grief” Mackintosh takes the self-help template and twists it into new, scary shapes, while in “Doctors” she takes the reader on a terrifying journey into mental breakdown via a potted summary of a disastrous PhD.

Elsewhere, “Google Maps Saved My Life” is poignant and melancholic, the narrator gazing online at the street view of her family home before her father died, and “For Anyone Who Wants To Be Friends With Me” details a revolting gang rape, but somehow frames it in a context that is witty, charming and redemptive.

Ultimately, Any Other Mouth is about coming out the other side of trauma, about finding hope in the tiny triumphs of life. In the closing story, “This Could Happen To Us”, Gretchen, in the first flush of love, dreams of a future life with her damaged boyfriend. It’s one of the saddest yet most uplifting things I’ve read in ages and it made me cry. Mackintosh is a real talent and Any Other Mouth is a remarkable debut.

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