Sweet Home by Carys Bray - book review: Unnerving tour de force shows what the short story can do

Parenthood and childhood are recurrent themes, but the book is also about stories; or, rather, being trapped in other people's stories

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The Independent Culture

I have to confess I read many of these stories with a catch in my throat. It is not simply that much of the subject matter – a premature child, a bereavement, a parent's dementia, a son's spiral into addiction – is inherently affecting. Rather it is Bray's supreme control over the prose, which has a quality both lapidary and tremulous – as if the stories were very successfully (and very English-ly) holding back tears.

The first story, “Everything a parent needs to know”, is a realist piece which counterpoints a mother's frustrations with her daughter against sententious advice from parodies of parenting manuals, such as “Give A Little Whistle: Disney Solutions To Parenting Problems”. The second, “Just in case”, is a piece of suburban gothic in the Roald Dahl vein. The third, and titular, story features an old immigrant woman who is building a temporary home in a copse, using ganache and Linzertorte; “no one accused [her] of being a witch”, but the locals worry that not using Victoria sponge shows a sinister lack of integration. This stylistic diversity is wonderfully unsettling: while reading the next 14 stories, the reader never knows whether to expect naturalism or fabulism, irony or sincerity, the grotesque or the mundane.

One story – almost the standout of the collection – is called “Scaling never” and features the same characters as Bray's novel A Song For Issy Bradley. Here, the same crisis unfolds from the perspective of seven-year-old Jacob. Having been brought up with stories of Eutychus, Tabitha, the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus, he knows the dead can be resurrected. He knows, too, that faith can be as small as a mustard seed, and he reckons (a glorious detail) that his is “at least as big as a toffee bonbon, maybe bigger”. It is exquisitely sad and insightful.

“The baby aisle”, which depicts a woman walking round a supermarket where there are babies to purchase, is a perfect marriage of satire and horror. As well as “posh pork pies topped with apricots and cranberries” the shelves are stocked with “Archies, Sebastians and Theodores”. It's when you get to the “Reduced To Clear” section, and the refunds policy, that the humour moves from bright to really rather dark. 

Parenthood and childhood are recurrent themes, but the book is also about stories; or, rather, being trapped in other people's stories. The finale is a cadenza in Short Cuts style, with each new character co-opting the previous character into their own drama. Accomplished, moving and unnerving, Sweet Home is a small tour de force.

Windmill Books £7.99. Order for £7.59 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030